A year after 'Diamond Princess', cruise industry eyes return

Cruise ship Diamond Princess anchored off the Yokohama Port in Yokohama on Feb 4, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (AFP) - Mr David Abel and his wife Sally might have had the cruise from hell last year on the coronavirus-hit Diamond Princess, but they cannot wait to get back to sea.

A year after the ill-fated ship went into quarantine off Japan, the cruise industry is hoping passengers like the Abels will help steer them to calmer waters.

Analysts say smooth sailing is not likely before the second half of 2021 at the earliest, but bookings are already picking up.

The Abels both caught Covid-19 on the Diamond Princess, but they have booked five cruises for late 2021 and early 2022, and are eyeing a sixth.

"We can't wait to get back to sea," Mr Abel told subscribers to his YouTube page in an early February video.

"There's nothing better than waking up in the morning in the world's most exciting and interesting cities. We love the sound of the ocean."

He acknowledged that some people "have concerns" but insisted he believes "cruises will be one of the safest types of vacations human beings could ever take".

When the Diamond Princess arrived off the Japanese city of Yokohama on Feb 3, 2020, the global death toll from the mysterious "new coronavirus" was around 400 and Japan had registered a handful of infections.

Carrying 2,666 passengers and 1,045 crew, the Diamond Princess was supposed to be meandering around Asia, but things quickly changed when a passenger tested positive after leaving the boat.

By Feb 4, Japanese authorities quarantined the ship and all on board. Testing showed the virus had spread widely.

Over 700 people on board would eventually test positive for the virus and 13 people died.

Ms Sarah Arana, an American social worker, looks back on the experience as "incredibly surreal". "I don't have any regrets about it," the 54-year-old told AFP, saying she felt she had a front-row seat to the pandemic's start and the science around handling the virus.

Passengers look out from their balconies on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, with around 3,600 people quarantined on board on Feb 14, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

Not brilliant

A year on, the lessons learnt from the pandemic mean tough restrictions for the cruise industry.

Canada has barred cruise vessels from its waters until February 2022. And the US Centres for Disease Control advises against cruises, though the authorities released rules last year for a phased resumption.

Operators will be required to have a lab on board for virus testing, and trips must last no more than seven days, with masks mandatory on board.

No surprise then that most cruises in the area have not resumed. Carnival Cruises now hopes to restart US operations in late April, as does Royal Caribbean. Norwegian Cruise Line is targeting early May.

But there is cause for hope, said Mr Patrick Pourbaix, director-general for France, Belgium and Luxembourg at MSC Cruises, which restarted Mediterranean cruises last August.

Its worldwide bookings for summer are at 60 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, with winter 2021/2022 at 80 per cent - "not brilliant, but not catastrophic", Mr Pourbaix said.

One Filipino former Diamond Princess crew member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP he is desperate to return to work despite his experience on the ship.

"We were very afraid," he said. "We knew the virus was spreading but we were being asked to work."

But being unemployed has been "very difficult... very stressful", he said, and he believes operators will ensure staff safety when cruises resume.

Mr Matthew Smith, an American lawyer who was on the Diamond Princess, said he and his wife look back on photos from their cruise with very different emotions.

"For her, the photos bring back memories of a very unhappy experience... I see pictures of a unique experience, an adventure of sorts, that I have no bad feelings about," he said.

Mr Smith said he had found the last year in the US "much more of a miserable experience", and the couple currently have three cruises booked.

Ms Arana, the social worker, feels differently, saying she will never board another cruise ship, in part after learning operators have limited liability for what happens to passengers.

But after her quarantine on board the Diamond Princess, she does have some advice for those considering a trip: "Get a balcony cabin... Make sure that you've got that balcony and fresh air!"

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