Chaos in the Caribbean as ports turn away cruises on coronavirus fears

Cruise liner MSC Meraviglia (left) is berthed at a dock in Punta Langosta after two Caribbean ports denied the ship entry in Cozumel, Mexico, on Feb 27, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

MIAMI (BLOOMBERG) - The Dominican Republic turned away a cruise ship with about 1,500 people on board on Thursday (Feb 27), the latest such episode as coronavirus concerns spread to tourist meccas in the Caribbean.

Local officials there refused to let passengers leave the Braemar Thursday after learning that some aboard the ship, operated by Bonheur ASA's Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, were under observation for flu, cough and respiratory problems.

The company said no guests or crew had shown symptoms consistent with coronavirus, and that the move was an "overreaction".

"We believe that this was as a result of a small number of influenza-like cases on board," the company said.

Meanwhile, passengers aboard the MSC Meraviglia were awaiting test results in Cozumel, Mexico, after their ship was barred from docking in Jamaica and Grand Cayman.

The episodes underscore the heightened concern of public officials over coronavirus following confirmed cases on a ship in Asia.

Previously, vessels had been turned away or quarantined in Asia and Europe, but the new incidents strike closer to home for US and Latin American authorities and threaten the US industry's core market of the Caribbean.

The largest US-based operators - Carnival Corp., Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. - have lost about US$31 billion (S$43 billion) in market value in about six weeks.

Shares of Carnival, the industry giant, closed at their lowest in more than six years on Thursday. MSC Cruises, which operates the Meraviglia, is closely held, and Fred. Olsen is part of a larger company.


From the outset, cruise companies began to dial back their exposure in Asia, where the industry had a small but growing presence. But the spread to Europe - and the risk to the Americas - poses a greater risk to the companies, especially during what is typically peak booking season.

In Cozumel, health officials were awaiting test results for a crew member and a passenger aboard the Meraviglia. The ship sailed for Cozumel after it was turned away in Jamaica and Grand Cayman.

MSC Cruises said the ship would remain in Cozumel until results come in and was optimistic guests would be able to disembark on Friday for tourist activities.

For a time Wednesday it was unclear whether the government would allow the ship to moor.

MSC Cruises said it received "formal and final authorization" to dock. But overnight, state Governor Carlos Joaquin Gonzalez of Quintana Roo, where Cozumel is located, contradicted the company, saying no authorisation would be given until after a health review.


In Miami, where the MSC Cruise originated, Port Director Juan Kuryla said at a press conference Thursday that the ship was welcome back based on current information.

Mexico President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador also weighed in Thursday, reiterating that the ship could dock but saying an inspection was called for.

"We're permitting it to dock, and there may be a disembarking of those on the ship," Lopez Obrador said at his morning press conference in Mexico City.

"We gave instructions for an inspection to be done and that they be allowed to arrive and stay. We can't act with discrimination."

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