As scientists seek to understand Omicron, the new COVID-19 variant first reported in South Africa, cruise shipping liners are putting in place restrictive measures that threaten a sector that seemed on the recovery path after two years since the pandemic.
This week, when the cruise ship Europa docked in Cape Town, the traditional ribbon-cutting ceremony that would have followed to welcome the tourists had to be cancelled to exercise caution over the variant.
Europa, a multi-storey white liner, is the first to dock in Cape Town since South Africa imposed a moratorium on all cruise vessels in March 2020.
The ship sailed from Namibia, carrying hundreds of passengers and crew. Unfortunately, the passengers could not disembark, save for those who wanted to fly home. Also, no crew change happened amid travel restrictions imposed by several European countries and USA for passengers traveling from the Southern African region.
Essentially, as countries continue to impose arbitrary travel bans hoping to fight the variant, it will come as an enormous setback for a crew change.
Singapore, an important crew change hub in the world, has already banned the entry of vessels from Africa. Hong Kong has listed 44 countries as high risk, among them countries in Southern Africa region, which makes it impossible to undertake crew change for vessels coming from these countries.
Meanwhile, India has ordered all passengers coming from high risk countries to undergo a mandatory RT-PCR test, besides a compulsory institutional quarantine for one week. This order will ultimately affect seafarers coming to Mumbai and proceeding for crew change to other parts of the world.
Captain Rajesh Unni, a Ship Manager and CEO of the Singapore-based Synergy Group, told India Business Line newspaper that the travel restrictions have affected his crew in South Africa.
“Some of our seafarers who signed off in South Africa, for example, are finding it very difficult to even find flights. In one instance, they turned the crew back from an airport in South Africa. It devastated them – they were looking forward to going home after having spent months onboard, without shore leave in most cases,” said Captain Unni.
Since the pandemic started, the seafarers have been on the receiving end of the travel restrictions, leading many to be stranded at sea or in foreign countries.
“There should be a global recognition that seafarers are key workers. And they should have access to green channels to enable them to work and return home as they keep the world trade moving. Yet, still, we have no legal framework for this, either to cope now or in the future when new ‘variants of concern’ emerge. We also have a patchwork of vaccine recognition rules that make very little sense,” added Captain Unni.
The new variant has also seen cruise companies face volatile stock prices. Shares of the major cruise companies like Royal Caribbean Group, Carnival Corporation and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings all fell sharply in March 2020 as the industry shut down.
Stock prices rebounded as the outlook surrounding COVID-19 improved, vaccines rolled out and vessels returned to the seas. However, the cruise stocks are seeing another major drop in prices on the heels of new pandemic worries surrounding the rise of the Omicron variant.
Since the close of trading last week, shares of all three major cruise companies were down by at least 18% in just four trading days. These sharp falls clearly reveal a major concern about the spread of the new variant, which could affect what has been a steady return of cruising around the world.
Little is known about Omicron, except that the mutations have put into question whether it is more transmissible than other forms of the virus and if it can evade immunity.
Unlike other variants such as Delta, in this case, many nations have already implemented travel restrictions, especially for portions of Africa where the virus was first discovered. While the trend had been toward an opening up of borders for tourism and some return to normal, that has quickly reversed in recent days. For example, Israel has closed its borders to foreign tourists just one month after re-opening them.
And while cruises require vaccines for the vast majority of passengers (if not all) and require negative tests before boarding, it would not be a stretch to think that they could come under pressure should Omicron become a larger issue.