Back in February, an elderly couple holed up on the Diamond Princess became minor media stars with their self-appointed mission “to keep the world informed” about the gruelling conditions on the quarantined cruise ship. For those who swiftly tired of David and Sally Abel and their (mostly his) 57 varieties of “This is an outrage!”, be warned; they pop up here too, but at least they look cheerful and healthy now, rather than overheated and disgruntled.
The Diamond Princess sailed from Yokohama on January 20 with 2,500 passengers on board. In the next 10 days it stopped in Hong Kong and then Taiwan where, during the changing of the guard at the royal palace, the Abels observed people sneezing and sniffling in the crowd. The main thrust of the documentary is that the £120bn cruise industry was far too slow to protect its crew and customers as the pandemic took hold. By the second of February there were more than 14,000 reported cases of infection globally, but still around 145 ships at sea. When passengers stopped off at virus hotspots, the gangplank handrail alone could be a conduit for the disease.
A Scottish couple aboard the Zaandam on a South American cruise arguably had an even more torrid time than the Abels. When Chile shut its borders, the captain defied an order to spend 14 days in quarantine off Punta Arenas, and took the Zaandam out to sea, earning himself the title of “The Flying Dutchman” from grateful passengers. But as the ship sailed north, country after country refused to allow it to dock, until the only hope left was a dash through the Panama Canal. The news that four Covid-19 fatalities lay in the morgue didn’t exactly raise morale.
Passengers whose holidays hadn’t even begun were not dissuaded from embarking. Alyssa and her family, having been told refunds were not available, found that their Australia cruise was “a free-for-all”. There was no social distancing, and the film of the crew performing an exuberant conga around the restaurant looks simultaneously fun, sad and scary given the context. Though the programme focuses on the disappointed passengers of what’s been described as “floating Petri dishes”, the plight of the crews is even starker. Thousands of them are still confined on empty liners, and it’s even suggested that some have thrown themselves overboard in desperation.
It was supposed to be a bumper year for cruising. Richard Branson’s flagship, Scarlet Lady, hasn’t even begun her maiden voyage. According to the Miami Herald’s investigation (many cruise companies are based in Miami), one-fifth of all cruise ships was shown to have the virus. Despite that, a recent survey suggests that regular cruisers haven’t been put off, with some even vowing to cruise even more in future. They’ll be pleased to hear that bargains galore are promised for 2021 as the industry kick-starts.
‘Billion Pound Cruises: All at Sea’, July 2, ITV
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