SINGAPORE: Major cruise liners have changed their itineraries in Asia to avoid calling at major ports like Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore amid fears of COVID-19.
Concurrently, they have imposed restrictions on passengers and stepped up health checks as well as cleaning protocols to assuage fears.
When asked by CNA, British-American cruise line Cunard said that one of its ships, the Queen Mary 2, will skip a scheduled stop in Singapore this month.
Passengers who were due to embark in Singapore will have the option of joining them from Freemantle, Australia and set sail on an Australian itinerary.
Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises have also reportedly cancelled sailings to Singapore in the coming weeks.
Additionally, for Regent Seven Seas Cruises, its ship the Seven Seas Voyager has removed Hong Kong from its Feb 12, Mar 1 and Mar 13 voyages.
Meanwhile, Princess Cruise Line has also modified the itinerary for at least two of its ships – the Sapphire Princess and Sun Princess.
For the Sapphire Princess, its voyages departing on Apr 16, May 2 and May 18 will arrive in Tokyo instead of Shanghai.
As for the Sun Princess, its scheduled calls to Hong Kong on Apr 28 and Jul 14, and Shanghai on May 1 and Jul 17, have been cancelled and replaced with calls to Seoul and Jeju in South Korea.
Mainland China, where the outbreak is said to have originated, has reported more than 1,500 deaths and over 65,000 infections.
Concerns over COVID-19 have been amplified by how one of Princess Cruise Line’s ship, the Diamond Princess, has become the largest single cluster of cases outside China.
The ship has been quarantined in the Japanese port of Yokohama and its 3,600 passengers and crew have been stuck at sea.
More than 200 people who were on board have been tested positive for the virus and they have been transferred to a local health facility for treatment.
Moreover, another cruise ship MS Westerdam carrying 1,455 passengers and 802 crew members was finally permitted to dock at the Cambodian port city of Sihanoukville after it spent the last two weeks at sea having been turned away by five counties over fears of the coronavirus.
READ: American tourist who disembarked from cruise in Cambodia tests positive for COVID-19 in Malaysia
These recent developments have prompted more measures by cruise liners to avoid an outbreak on board as this can lead to bad publicity and hurt them financially, said infectious diseases specialist Professor Sanjaya Senanayake.
“There’s a lot of incentive for cruises to look after and maintain a clean environment. We know that more than 20 million people in the world travel on cruises in a year and a lot of them have a wonderful time,” said Prof Senanayake, who is with the Australian National University.
RESTRICTIONS IMPOSED ON PASSENGERS
Beside making itinerary changes, cruises liners are restricting some passengers, based on their nationality and recent travel history.
Regent Seven Seas Cruise said that guests who hold a Chinese, Hong Kong or Macau passport, regardless of where they reside, will not be allowed to board its ships until Apr 8.
Meanwhile, Cunard and Princess Cruises said that any passenger who has travelled through China, Macau or Hong Kong within 14 days of the start of the cruise will not be permitted to board the vessel.
As a further precautionary measure, Cunard said any passenger who has travelled from or through Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore or Malaysia within 14 days of embarkation will be subject to enhanced pre-boarding screening to determine whether permission is given to embark.
ENHANCED DISINFECTION PROTOCOLS
Cruise lines have also intensified environmental disinfection on board, in addition to existing cleaning and sanitation protocols.
For Princess Cruises, a spokesperson told CNA that its ships and medical staff are well equipped to prevent and contain the spread of contagious illnesses, including coronavirus.
“We are taking extra precautions and are being guided in consultation with international and local health authorities,” the spokesperson said.
Among the precautions that are being taken include enhanced screening of guests and crew, as well as temperature checks for those with fever or respiratory symptoms.
When a passenger exhibits symptoms of the virus while onboard, Regent Seven Seas Cruises said they could be screened for the coronavirus and may be subjected to potential quarantine and disembarkation.
For passengers who were on board the Diamond Princess that have been under quarantine, Princess Cruise Line said that its guests will "receive a full refund of cruise expenses" considering the "extraordinary circumstances".
These expenses include cruise fares, hotels expenses before and after the cruise and air transfers. Passengers will also receive a 100 per cent future cruise credit equal to the fare they paid for the voyage, redeemable before Feb 28.
CRUISE TERMINALS SHUT, SCREENING MEASURES ENHANCED
Some cruise terminals have been shut for now, while others have stepped up screening measures.
Hong Kong has closed off its two cruise terminals: Kai Tak and Ocean.
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam made the announcement as part of measures to suspend 10 out of 13 border crossings with mainland China, in a bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Ms Lam said the closures would reduce the number of Chinese mainlanders entering Hong Kong and allow officials to focus resources on two land entry points as well as the airport.
Over at Malaysia’s Boustead Cruise Centre in Port Klang, thermal scanners have been installed and authorities would check passenger manifests before allowing cruise passengers to disembark.
During a visit to the cruise centre on Thursday, Malaysia’s Transport Minister Anthony Loke said the cruise centre would not allow passengers from China to disembark.
He added that since Jan 25, more than 60,000 international cruise passengers have disembarked at Port Klang and measures have been put in place to ensure that all of them did not enter Malaysia if they were running a high temperature.
“This procedure is to gain confidence among people that we are taking steps to preserve the health of the locals Malaysians at large,” said Mr Loke.
As of Friday, Malaysia has 19 confirmed cases for the virus, out of whom six are Malaysians and 13 are Chinese nationals.
PASSENGERS MUST COMPLY WITH QUARANTINE PROTOCOL: INFECTIOUS DISEASE EXPERT
While this could be an unpleasant situation for cruise passengers in a holiday mood, Prof Senanayake stressed that it is important for all passengers to comply with health protocols.
“The worst thing they can do is to surreptitiously get off the ship and go somewhere else because they might be sick. Then they wouldn’t be monitored and this could lead to an outbreak,” he said.
He added that if quarantine is being imposed, passengers and crew should comply and mostly keep to their rooms.
“Even when passengers come out to the deck to walk around, they must maintain certain distances (from other passengers) when they move,” he advised.
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Prof Senanayake also warned that if an infected person has been in close contact with other people, this could reset the quarantine period, causing the passengers and crew to be stuck at sea for an even longer time.
“But if everyone on board is kept apart, even though new cases are diagnosed, there may not be a need to extend the quarantine period,” he added.