Thousands still trapped at sea as more ports turn away cruise ships

Mar 20, 2020

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information about ships that have been unable to dock around the world.

More than a dozen cruise ships around the world that were at sea when cruise lines began announcing a global halt to operations last week still are struggling to find a place to dock.

In what travel industry officials have begun describing as a humanitarian crisis, vessels operated by Norwegian Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Princess Cruises and several other major brands have been turned away from multiple ports in recent days due to fears of coronavirus.

The vessels include the 2,376-passenger Norwegian Jewel, which has tried and failed to dock in New Zealand and Fiji since late last week and now is heading toward Hawaii; and the 670-passenger Pacific Princess, which has been sailing toward Australia after being blocked from landing at multiple ports across the Indian Ocean and Asia.

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Other vessels that have been struggling to find a place to offload passengers in recent days include the 2,852-passenger Celebrity Eclipse, the 684-passenger Azamara Pursuit and the 1,250-passenger Marina. The first two ships currently are anchored near Valparaiso, Chile, which has denied them entry. Marina, an Oceania Cruises vessel, is near the Panama Canal.

“A disturbing and antihumanitarian trend has emerged”, Zane Kerby, the president and CEO of the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), said on Wednesday in a statement. “Multiple cruise ships at sea have been denied entry to various ports around the world for fear that some aboard might have or spread the COVID-19 virus”.

In some cases, the ships have reported they have passengers on board showing symptoms of coronavirus. But Kerby noted the exclusions were taking place even for ships with no known cases of illness on board.

“This issue persists out of apparent local government fear”, he said.

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To be sure, a large percentage of the nearly 300 cruise ships operated by major lines around the world have had no trouble returning to a nearby port and dropping off passengers. But, at least a few vessels now are facing journeys of thousands of miles to reach a port that will accept them.

In one of the most extreme cases, British line P&O Cruises on Wednesday announced its 2,388-passenger Arcadia would be forced to travel more than 8,000 miles from its current location near the southern tip of Africa to the U.K. to get passengers off the vessel. South Africa denied the line’s request to let passengers disembark in Cape Town.

The voyage will take more than three weeks.

Also preparing to make an epic journey is Celebrity Eclipse. Celebrity says the vessel soon will sail from Valparaiso to San Diego, a trip that will take 10 days. But Celebrity Eclipse still needs to take on provisions necessary for such a long voyage — a process made difficult by Chile’s refusal to let the ship dock.

“Provisions including food and fuel are being slowly barged to the ship, further delaying the journey back home”, Kerby said. “While local governments certainly have a responsibility to keep their citizens safe, human decency and common-sense solutions should take precedence during these times of crisis”.

In some cases, ships seem to be stuck in limbo.

Two Silversea ships that had been sailing in South America are now under isolation in ports in Brazil and Chile after passengers tested positive for coronavirus. It’s unclear how or when passengers will be allowed off the vessels.

“On behalf of our guests, we are in close coordination with the governments and local health authorities to determine next best steps”, Silversea said Monday in a statement about the two ships — the 382-passenger Silver Shadow and the 144-passenger Silver Explorer. Silver Shadow is in Recife, Brazil; Silver Explorer is in Tortel, Chile.

On Thursday, a spokesperson for Silversea said nothing about the situation had changed since Monday.

Related: Cruises is many regions unlikely to resume for months  

The situation on all the vessels has worried friends and family of passengers who, along with the passengers themselves, have taken to social media to express their frustration and beg for governments and politicians to help. In some cases, cruise lines have had little information to share other than that they are looking for a country that will take in the vessels.

“[Please] help!” a daughter-in-law of a passenger on board Celebrity Eclipse pleaded Thursday on Twitter, echoing a growing flurry of tweets about the ship over the past 48 hours.

Norwegian Cruise Line is facing troubles with two ships. In addition to Norwegian Jewel, the line’s 1,996-passenger Norwegian Spirit is still at sea after being turned away from several ports in the Indian Ocean. It recently had been heading to Cape Town, South Africa. But, as P&O Cruises discovered this week, South Africa no longer is accepting cruise vessels.

A spokesperson for Norwegian Cruise Line on Thursday told The Points Guy the line didn’t have an update on Norwegian Spirit’s status. Nor did the line have an update on Norwegian Jewel.

The current sailing of Norwegian Jewel originally was scheduled to end tomorrow in Tahiti. But with cruising coming to a halt around the globe, the vessel turned around several days ago and tried to dock first in New Zealand and then Fiji. After being turned away by both destinations, it began the long voyage to Hawaii — a destination at least five days away.

Norwegian had been hopeful that Hawaii would allow the ship to unload passengers, as U.S. ports, for the most part, have remained opened for returning cruise vessels. Passengers on board Norwegian Jewel even were told to start making arrangements to fly home from Honolulu.

But late Wednesday, the State of Hawaii announced it would not allow passengers on the vessel to disembark. Another vessel stranded in the Pacific that has been heading to Hawaii, Holland America’s 1,258-passenger Maasdam, is in a similar situation. As of now, both ships only will be allowed to enter the harbour at Honolulu for the purpose of refuelling and restocking provisions.

One passenger on board Norwegian Jewel, Mark Lijek, 68, of Anacortes, Washington, told The Points Guy this week that it’s been a trying few days.

“The biggest stress factor has been the lack of knowledge, both of what is happening in the outside world and, more particularly of course, what Norwegian management was up to”, said Lijek, a retired foreign service officer. He noted an early plan was to dock in a small New Zealand city of Tauranga.

“The first plan, dropping us in Tauranga, which has no international airport, seemed problematic”, Lijek said. “Fiji seemed practical for several reasons. We think most people had travel arrangements, and it was a gut punch when they withdrew permission”.

That said, Lijek is taking things in stride. He’s been through worse. His first assignment as a foreign service officer, in the 1970s, was to Tehran, and he and his wife, Cora, were two of the six Americans who escaped the U.S. embassy takeover in 1979.

Related: Cruise ship ‘draws’ 16-mile-wide smile at sea as gift to departing passengers

“That event taught me to try and maintain perspective — also, to make sure I know the location of the Canadian embassy”, he quipped. “Cora and I have been joking that, despite the years, at least we have not lost the knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time”.

Lijek added that the crew of Norwegian Jewel had been terrific through the ordeal.

Another stranded cruiser taking things in stride is Tamara Koperda, a 61-year-old retiree from Atlanta who is onboard Maasdam with her husband, Frank.

“If our destiny is to stay on the ship, we will make the best of it!” Koperda told The Points Guy Thursday after learning passengers might not be allowed off in Honolulu. The vessel already has been turned away from two other ports in recent days.

“We are a healthy ship, for which we are most grateful”, Koperda said, noting that passengers and crew have been finding ways to entertain themselves and remain upbeat even as some provisions begin running low. “We had a guest and staff talent show last night that was truly funny. There were poems about being out of lettuce but please don’t run out of booze”.

Still, Koperda said passengers are very worried about our families and friends at home — and about the risks that confront them.

“We all realize that our trip home will be the riskiest part of the journey as far as the virus is concerned”, she said. “However, some guests are running out of prescription (medicines), and we’ve been advised by the medical staff that they will have to work with what they have on board”.

Hawaii’s move to block the offloading of cruise passengers in the state is at odds with federal pronouncements on the topic. While all cruising out of U.S. ports has stopped, the U.S. government has been letting cruise ships return to U.S. ports to disembark passengers. The U.S. government issued a waiver to new coronavirus-related rules restricting the arrival of non-U.S. citizens to make that possible.

Still, Hawaii wouldn’t be the first state or territory to block the arrival of cruise ships in recent days. On Sunday, the San Juan, Puerto Rico-based 2,056-passenger Carnival Fascination was denied permission to dock in San Juan as was Royal Caribbean’s 3,634-passenger Freedom of the Seas. The denials came from the government of Puerto Rico.

“We made a formal request to at least debark Puerto Rican residents, but that was also denied”, Carnival said Sunday in a statement.

Both Carnival Fascination and Freedom of the Seas instead sailed to Miami, which they reached on Tuesday. All passengers were able to disembark without incident.

The Princess ship in the Indian Ocean, Pacific Princess, hasn’t been allowed to dock anywhere for days due to worries about the new coronavirus. Visits to Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka have been cancelled. The ship, which is in the midst of a world cruise, recently was heading for Fremantle, Australia. But Australia, too, has announced restrictions on arriving cruise ships.

That said, another Princess Cruises ship that had been searching for a home, the 2,600-passenger Golden Princess, finally was able to disembark passenger Thursday in Melbourne, Australia.

A spokesperson for Princess Cruises did not immediately respond to a request for more information about the status of Pacific Princess.

Among other vessels that have been stranded at sea, the Oceania Cruises ship near the Panama Canal, Marina, appears to be anchored for the time being near Panama City. It was turned away from ports in Peru and Chile. There’s also a Costa Cruises vessel with confirmed cases of coronavirus on board now docked at the French city of Marseilles.

In a bit of upbeat news, a British ship that had been in the midst of a high seas drama earlier this week as it was turned away from multiple ports has finally found a home. The 929-passenger Braemer docked in Cuba on Wednesday.

The Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines vessel (the Fred. is short for Fredrik, hence the period) had been experiencing an outbreak of coronavirus with six confirmed cases and 49 additional suspected cases. Late Wednesday, the passengers flew out of Cuba for the U.K. on four chartered aircraft, include one set aside just for the sick passengers. 

Nearly all the passengers were British, and none were Americans.

Featured image by Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines.

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