42,000 cruise ship workers still trapped at sea

Some are still suffering from COVID-19.
The Oceania Cruises’ Riviera ship can be seen out in the water near Miami Beach on May 15.
The Oceania Cruises’ Riviera ship can be seen out in the water near Miami Beach on May 15. [ MATIAS J. OCNER | Miami Herald ]
Published June 15, 2020

After 80 days at sea, three transfers between ships, four canceled flights and one plane malfunction, Royal Caribbean Cruises music director Bruno Cruells finally touched down in his native Argentina on June 3, accompanied by 251 compatriots. Sitting behind the taxi’s new plexiglass on the way home from the airport with his hometown whizzing by out the window, he felt relief.

“I felt like I was finally safe somehow,” said Cruells, 30, “like continuing from where I left before all of this happened.”

As more countries loosen COVID-19 travel restrictions, crew members are slowly making their way home. About 3,000 Carnival Cruise Line workers got off in Croatia earlier this month to catch rides and flights home across Europe. Smiling behind their masks, they posed for a selfie on the pier.

Meanwhile, MSC has flown more than 1,000 Indian crew members home on charter flights from Europe and South America. Royal Caribbean also flew more than 1,200 Filipino crew members home last week from Greece, Dubai, the United States and Barbados.

Still, at least 42,000 workers remain trapped on cruise ships without paychecks — some still suffering from COVID-19 — three months after the industry shut down.

The drawn-out crew repatriation process has underscored the complex relationship between the cruise industry and the Caribbean countries its ships most frequently visit, and reignited the debate about whether countries are getting a fair shake from the industry.

In February and March, cruise ships spread COVID-19 to islands around the Caribbean, accounting for half of the infections in Trinidad and Tobago. After the industry shut down on March 13, Caribbean countries turned ships suffering outbreaks away when they desperately needed a place to evacuate sick passengers and crew.

Now, as countries struggle with returning cruise ship workers still testing positive for COVID-19, they are also wrestling with how to get the industry back up and running. Jamaica, Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Belize in Central America have all reported positive COVID-19 infections among repatriated workers, in some cases after weeks without registering any new infections. Cruise companies say cruises will resume in August after the U.S. ban expires on July 24.

Alfred Sears, an attorney and former member of the Bahamian Parliament, said the COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity for Caribbean countries to restructure their relationships with cruise companies to demand more investment in exchange for tax exemptions.

“This pandemic will force us to ask some fundamental questions about how we do business,” he said. “There ought to be a more balanced relationship.”

Only Barbados has allowed for crew repatriation flights from its airports on which thousands have been returned home to countries all over the world, including Cruells. At the start of the pandemic, the Bahamas, which serves as the flag state for many cruise ships, rejected requests to take passengers in and later, cruise ship workers. The country’s maritime authority cited its limited resources and ongoing hurricane recovery as reasons why it could not do more.

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According to the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA), the Bahamas government collected $54.2 million from cruise lines in 2018, mostly in $18 per-passenger fees. That year, the Bahamas paid cruise companies around $12 million to bring passengers to the country, an incentive Minister of Tourism and Aviation Dionisio D’Aguilar ended in October 2018. Carnival Corporation Chairman Micky Arison is the current chairman of the FCCA.

Determining the true financial relationship between the cruise lines and the Bahamas — or any of the Caribbean islands — is difficult. Each nation negotiates its own agreements; some details are difficult for the public to access.

D’Aguilar did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Anita Johnson-Patty, a spokesperson for the Bahamas tourism sector, said D’Aguilar was “unavailable to respond to questions,” citing the country’s upcoming phased reopening on Monday.

The Nassau Guardian Business reported in March that the Bahamas government had facilitated $1.3 billion-plus in cruise tourism infrastructure and private island development by various cruise companies since 2017, based on data the publication compiled. D’Aguilar told the Guardian the investments were part of the government’s focus on expanding the cruise industry.

Cruise companies point to contributions they’ve made to clean up the Bahamas after hurricanes and investments they’ve made on their private islands there as proof of their commitment to the local communities.

“Cruising is an important aspect of the economy throughout the Caribbean, just as the Caribbean is an important part of the cruise industry,” said Roger Frizzell, spokesperson for Carnival Corp. “Our investment in the Caribbean is significant and continues to be an important priority for our company.”

Carnival Corp. owns a shipyard in Freeport through a joint venture with Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and the Grand Bahama Port Authority.

“We have a long history with our partners in the Caribbean, and we are grateful for their collaborative efforts and their partnership throughout the years,” said Royal Caribbean Cruises spokesperson Jonathon Fishman. “We look forward to sailing again in the Caribbean and continuing our productive relationship.”

Still, Frank Comito, CEO of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, said the cruise industry needs to do more to improve Caribbean destinations that have been so critical to its business.

“Governments in the region have been wanting a more constructive dialogue with the cruise industry, with many expressing concerns about what they’ve perceived as strong-arm tactics by the cruise industry to get what they want or threaten to blackball a destination,” said Comito. “This has worked for years, but there appears to be a sea change occurring in the region as some governments have called for new terms of engagement.”

The Bahamas, which has registered 103 COVID-19 cases and 11 deaths, plans to reopen its borders by July 1, possibly making available a second airport in the Caribbean for crew repatriation flights. There is no date set for when ports will reopen to cruise ships.

Before cruising resumes, former Bahamas Minister of Tourism Obie Wilchcombe and other industry watchers hope Caribbean countries will take a more critical look at the industry.

“The pandemic created a whole new scenario and has now raised new questions,” said Wilchcombe, who served as tourism minister 2002-2007 and 2012-2017. “Nobody was prepared for this. Moving forward it’s imperative we think of a new approach, a paradigm that’s going to make sense for everybody, to protect your passengers.”

Countries hold the cards

Citing the strained mental health of people still stuck at sea during the pandemic, the United Nations has called on countries around the world to lift their travel restrictions for seafarers. At least three cruise ship workers have died in apparent suicides since the industry shut down cruising on March 13, and many still stuck describe hopelessness. Hundreds of thousands more seafarers are stuck on cargo ships.

“It’s very difficult not knowing any information,” said an MSC crew member who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. He has not been paid since mid-April and is concerned about his family’s well-being while he is gone. He said he prefers the occasional days when the ship comes into port to refuel compared to the days anchored offshore to dump waste. “Even though I can’t get off, it feels safer.”

Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa, remains closed to crew members waiting to go home. Gan Sungaralingum, 38, and eight fellow Mauritians remain stuck on Carnival Corp.’s Island Princess ship. After transferring to the ship in the Bahamas in April, the company stopped paying Sungaralingum and his colleagues. They have been trapped on board ever since, traveling across the Atlantic Ocean to drop off crew members in South Africa, bypassing their home country and continuing on to Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

The government of Mauritius is asking the cruise companies to pay for 15-day quarantine accommodations and testing for returning crew totaling $1,300 per crew member, according to an agreement with the secretary of foreign affairs provided to the Herald. The crew members must fly home on Air Mauritius planes chartered by the company.

“I am very disappointed by the government’s actions toward their own people,” Sungaralingum said. “They have put a price on our head. I feel ashamed of my country.”

Caribbean countries have been equally vigilant. Jamaica is requiring all returning crew members to be tested and quarantined, while Grenada has negotiated testing by the cruise lines as part of its agreement for returning crew.

In April, the U.S. restricted crew repatriation to private transportation. The U.S. Coast Guard, overwhelmed by dozens of medical evacuations for crew with COVID-19, told ships to seek medical help for crew members from their flag states instead. The Bahamas said it couldn’t help.

“We are a small island developing state with a national population in the three hundred thousand,” the Bahamas Maritime Authority said in a statement at the time. “Our system is not designed to deal with a massive influx of new COVID-19 patients from outside our country.”

The flag ship system allows cruise companies to register their ships in tax havens like the Bahamas, Liberia, Panama and Malta — sometimes referred to as “flags of convenience” for their lax enforcement of international environmental and labor rules for the maritime sector. Although headquartered in Miami, cruise companies are incorporated elsewhere: Carnival Corporation in Panama; Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. in Liberia; Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings in Bermuda.

Fabrizio Barcellona, assistant secretary of the seafarer section of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), told the trade publication FreightWaves that if ships were flagged in countries with more resources, the crew repatriation crisis could have been avoided.

“As a trade union, we are always accused of being critical and cynical about flags of convenience, but the reality of this crisis has highlighted the issue, because if half the world fleet had been under the flag of the USA, something would have happened by now,” he said.

Though the Caribbean is by far the most popular region for cruising, most cruise ships are based in the U.S. instead of Caribbean countries, shorting them of the more lucrative spending by tourists who stay overnight. Cruise companies hire mostly workers from Indonesia, the Philippines and India, though it depends on the line.

The FCCA estimates that in 2018, the 2.44 million cruise passengers who visited the Bahamas spent around $322.6 million, or around $132 per day. Spending from cruise passengers in the Caribbean amounts to less than one-tenth of what overnight visitors spend, according to the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association.

Martha Honey, co-founder of the Center for Responsible Travel, which consults with destinations on how best to protect their local communities while bringing in important tourist dollars, said she hopes the COVID-19 pandemic can provide a clean slate for agreements between Caribbean countries and the industry.

Honey said bargaining for higher per-passenger “head” taxes and other investment as a group would give Caribbean countries more power, an idea that has been floated in the past.

“Countries need to feel emboldened, that they have some chips on their side for a change,” Honey said. “They need to come together and say ‘we want this head tax.’ There needs to be a real public discussion about what tourism really looks like in terms of what the government has had to pay.”

Wilchcombe agrees. More investment could allow the Bahamas and other countries to shore up their infrastructure and better prepare for future cruise ship crises and hurricanes. The 15-member Caribbean Community regional bloc, known as CARICOM, should lead those discussions to present a united front, he said.

“What I think should happen is that CARICOM ought to be sitting down with the cruise lines as a CARICOM community, not as individual countries and the Caribbean Tourism Organization as well playing a major role and coming up with a paradigm that all countries of the Caribbean can work together,” he said.

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