How the coronavirus is impacting Asia's cruises and passengers

A new viral outbreak is wreaking havoc on cruises in Asia, where some passengers are stranded aboard ships and others can't leave China. Here are some questions and answers about the virus's impact on the cruise industry and passengers.

Expert says a hospital — not a ship — is best place to keep people quarantined

The quarantined cruise ship Diamond Princess anchors at the Yokohama Port on Monday. (Eugene Hoshiko/The Associated Press)

A new viral outbreak is wreaking havoc on cruises in Asia, where some passengers are stranded aboard ships and others can't leave China.

Japan's health ministry has confirmed 174 cases of COVID-19 aboard Carnival Corp.'s Diamond Princess, which is docked in Yokohama, Japan. The ship that carried 3,700 passengers and crew into Japan is expected to remain under quarantine until at least Feb. 19.

The operators of a cruise ship that had been barred for days from docking by four governments announced Wednesday it will finally land and disembark passengers in Cambodia.

Thailand denied permission for the MS Westerdam to dock at a Thai port after it had already been turned away by the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan. The ship has been unwelcome because of fears that those aboard could be carrying the virus, though no cases of the disease have been confirmed among the more than 2,200 passengers and crew on board.

Here are some questions and answers about the virus's impact on the cruise industry and passengers:

How many cruise ships are in Asia right now?

The Cruise Lines International Association — which represents around 90 per cent of global cruise capacity — says around 10 of its 272 member ships are currently in Asia. Only the Diamond Princess has confirmed cases of COVID-19, the association said. Six of the 10 ships have cancelled their itineraries for now, including Royal Caribbean's Spectrum of the Seas and MSC's Splendida.

Some passengers are seen on the Diamond Princess as it sits moored at Yokohama for a refill of supplies. The 3,700 people on board faced a two-week quarantine in their cabins. (Kenzaburo Fukuhara/Kyodo News via The Associated Press)

Have any ships been allowed to let passengers off?

Yes. On Sunday, Dream Cruises said passengers on its World Dream were cleared to disembark in Hong Kong after screenings found no positive tests for the virus. The ship had arrived in Hong Kong four days earlier. In Italy, more than 6,600 passengers and crew were allowed to disembark from Carnival's Costa Smeralda on Jan. 31 after a Chinese passenger was found to have the flu and not COVID-19.

Are cruise ships banning some passengers from boarding?

Yes. Policies vary, but in general, cruise companies won't allow passengers or crew to board if they have visited, travelled from or passed through airports in China, Hong Kong and Macau within a certain time period — usually 14 days or 30 days.

They also aren't allowing people to board if they have been in close contact with someone with the virus. Royal Caribbean was banning all passengers with passports from China, Hong Kong and Macau, but the company lifted that ban Monday. Norwegian Cruise Lines is still banning passengers who hold those passports.

Is quarantine the best way to handle a viral outbreak on a cruise?

According to Tara Smith, a professor who researches infectious diseases at Kent State University's College of Public Health, a hospital — not a ship — is the best place to keep people quarantined.

The Diamond Princess may have already had environmental contamination when the quarantine began, which puts passengers and crew at risk of further transmission. "I think this was done without a lot of thought to consequences of ongoing transmission within the ship and the mental health of the passengers," Smith said.

Two people wave from the quarantined Diamond Princess. Japanese Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said the government was considering testing everyone remaining on board and the crew, which would require them to remain aboard until results were available. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)

What other precautions are cruise lines taking?

Cruise lines are scanning the temperatures of passengers and crew and having them complete questionnaires before they board any ship. MSC says it's conducting elevated deep-cleaning on its ships; Royal Caribbean also says it has stepped up cleaning of its ships and air filtration systems.

Can passengers catch the virus through the ventilation systems?

Japanese health ministry official Masami Sakoi said the cabins on the Diamond Princess have separate air-conditioning systems, so guests aren't sharing the same air. "We do not consider the air-conditioning system as the cause of spreading infections," he said.

Medical workers with protective suites enter the cruise ship in Yokohama, near Tokyo, on Tuesday. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

What is life like for passengers aboard these ships?

Christina Kerby, a communications director with a health-care company in San Francisco, struck an upbeat tone in her Twitter posts aboard the Westerdam. She says the ship is holding spin classes, magic shows and towel-folding demonstrations. But she expressed regret when Philippine crew members couldn't disembark in Manila to see their families, as they'd hoped. The situation is more grim aboard the Diamond Princess, where those under quarantine watched as officials in hazmat suits carried off sick passengers. Passenger David Abel has described the ship as a "floating prison."

Passengers stand on the deck of the Diamond Princess. Japan’s health ministry said Wednesday that 39 new cases of a virus had been confirmed on the ship. (Yuta Omori/Kyodo News/Associated Press)

When will cruise operations return to normal?

That's unclear. Royal Caribbean has cancelled eight China sailings through March 4. Princess Cruises has cancelled 12 cruises through March 20. Holland America said it's weighing port restrictions in Asia before deciding on a cruise scheduled to leave Yokohama on Feb. 28. Norwegian Cruise Lines has cancelled scheduled Asian cruises on the Norwegian Spirit through Dec. 7. In some cases, cruises are being rerouted. Norwegian said a 24-day cruise leaving South Africa on March 22 that was supposed to end in Singapore will now last 27 days and end in Greece, for example.

How much will this impact cruise companies?

Asia is not yet a major destination for cruises. This year, around 10 per cent of cruise ships worldwide were scheduled to be deployed to Asia, according to Cruise Lines International Association. That's down slightly from 2017, and compares to 32 per cent deployed to the Caribbean and 28 per cent to Europe and the Mediterranean.

The virus may not have much impact on cruise bookings outside of Asia, says UBS analyst Robin Farley. Past experience shows that concerns about viruses usually remain regional, she said.

Cruise companies could be hurt by lower passenger volumes coming out of Asia, however. The association said its members expected 4.2 million passengers from Asia this year, or 12.5 per cent of all passengers. That would be up from 3.4 million in 2016.

But even if 2020 passenger volumes from Asia are lower than expected, they can recover quickly. In 2015, a viral outbreak in Korea hurt demand for cruises from China. But by 2016, Korea was once again a top destination for Chinese travellers, Farley said.