Cruise ships, COVID-19, and the economics of tourism


Caribbean cruises and COVID-19 outbreaks onboard have been in the news since the start of the pandemic. With the omicron variant spreading so rapidly, the giant ships are right back in the headlines. As recently as Tuesday, 89 of those floating towns, which Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal described as “petri dishes,” have confirmed COVID-19 outbreaks.

Writing for The Washington Post, Meryl Kornfield collected perspectives from passengers over the Christmas holiday.

Peterson and four other Carnival Freedom passengers who spoke to The Washington Post spent much of their Christmastime avoiding public areas of their ship, unsure of how many people have tested positive or unwittingly spread the virus. One passenger from a recent voyage on the same ship — who isolated in a hotel in Miami because he tested positive the day after the cruise — told The Post that his six-day Caribbean vacation has become a month-long ordeal because he cannot travel home to Canada.

Sitting in her stateroom on Christmas Day, Peterson paused to listen to a ship-wide announcement, wondering whether it would answer the questions she has about the infections onboard her ship.

“Oh, they’re just talking about the weather,” she said. “They come on every day; you think they’re going to tell us something about covid, and it’s, ‘We’re passing by this island and the weather is 82 degrees.’ ”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just announced investigations of dozens of cruise ships.

According to the CDC’s website, 68 ships have either met the agency’s “investigation threshold” of crew or passenger COVID-19 outbreaks or a health department has alerted the agency of passengers with COVID-19 who disembarked within five days.

The CDC is investigating 36 ships. It has already investigated an additional 32 ships, but these vessels remain “under observation,” the agency said.

Affected ships come from cruise lines including Disney, MSC Cruises, Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity.

Much of the public reaction in Puerto Rico—which faces a soaring rise in COVID-19 cases—has been alarm. Many Puerto Ricans are expressing sentiments of “tourists stay home” on social media, especially after hearing that ships turned away by other islands will dock in the U.S. territory.

Royal Caribbean’s “Symphony of the Seas” ship can accommodate nearly 7,000 guests.

As Primera Hora reported on Dec. 22:

Over 20,000 tourists will visit Puerto Rico on cruise ships this week, the Tourism Company reported on Wednesday.

The San Juan docks will receive visitors on various cruise ships, which translated into an economic impact of approximately $ 2.8 million, the agency said.


Just how essential to the Caribbean economy is the cruise industry? Here’s some data. 

Spanning 2.75 million square kilometers, with roughly seven thousand islands, more than 20 bordering countries, and sun-bathing temperatures all year round, the Caribbean Sea has become the main hub for cruise tourism in the world. In recent years, the region has reached around one third of the global passenger capacity, surpassing the Mediterranean by a wide margin as the most important market for this kind of tourism.                    

The Caribbean sea is part of the Central American sea, located on the Western side of the Atlantic Ocean. The United States, the closest global player to the Caribbean region in the North American continent, was the leading country of origin among cruise travelers in 2018, with more than double the share of cruise passengers originating from the other nine countries on the ranking. Brazil, the only Latin American country on the list that year, accounted for approximately two percent of the cruise passengers worldwide, suggesting that despite geographic proximity, cruise tourism remains a luxury service in the global travel and tourism sector.

Writing for Skift, global tourism reporter Lebawit Lily Girma examines the emerging impact of omicron on the region.

The region’s tourism vulnerability to the pandemic will continue to impact its full economic recovery as source markets increasingly restrict travel due to a fast spreading and little-understood Omicron variant. Now is the time for a good number of islands to double down on their lagging vaccine access and uptake. 

The Caribbean region, being among the most tourism-dependent in the world, was predicted to be among the hardest hit by the pandemic’s global fallout. The World Travel & Tourism Council had projected the economic impact of Covid on the islands to result in a $42 billion loss in gross domestic product and 1.9 million jobs lost in 2020.

At least nine destinations are expected to surpass 2019 levels between December 17 and January 2 as of current Christmastime international flight confirmations. But it’s too early to determine how much Omicron might impact those plans and additional flights going into 2022 given the fluidity of the pandemic, particularly if re-entry rules mount for travelers or if the variant proves harmful to the region’s destinations with low Covid vaccination rates.

As governments in major source markets such as Canada, which strongly advised against overseas travel on Wednesday, and parts of Europe continue to weigh tougher restrictions amid a rapidly spreading variant, the Caribbean’s tourism rebound in 2022 hangs in the balance.

Though it is easy for some people to rail against tourism, the reality for so much of the Caribbean dependent upon it makes changing its dynamics difficult. There are, however, those who have a different perspective, like the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), which produced this 45-minute film in 2016 to show “that the Caribbean is more than traditional large resort and cruise tourism.”

For further reading, Dr. Martha Honey, the CEO of Responsible Travel Consulting and the co-founder and former executive director of CREST, has written and edited several books on this subject. Each takes a different look at the issues for the Caribbean, including Cruise Tourism in the Caribbean: Selling Sunshine and Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise? 

I don’t know if you’ve ever been on a cruise to the Caribbean, or have made plans to do so, or if you live in the Caribbean and have opinions about the tourism industry and tourists. If any of this applies to you, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, where you will also find the weekly Caribbean News Twitter Roundup.

See you there.

Thursday, Dec 30, 2021, · 6:07:11 PM +00:00 · Jessica Sutherland

The CDC issued revised guidance about cruise ship travel on Thursday. The gist? Don’t do it.

December 30, 2021

The COVID-19 Travel Health Notice level has been updated from Level 3 to Level 4, the highest level. This reflects increases in cases onboard cruise ships since identification of the Omicron variant.

Avoid cruise travel, regardless of vaccination status. If you travel on a cruise ship, make sure you are fully vaccinated before travel and get a COVID-19 vaccine booster dose if you are eligible. Getting vaccinated is still the best way to protect yourself from severe disease, slow the spread of COVID-19, and reduce the number of new variants. People who are not fully vaccinated should follow additional recommendations before, during, and after travel.

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