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A month ago, it may have been reasonable to think it would be safer traveling on a small cruise ship — rather than a megaship — during an outbreak of COVID-19.
Surprisingly, however, the opposite is proving to be true … sort of. Four vessels — each with hundreds or dozens of passengers, rather than thousands — witnessed positive COVID-19 tests in the last couple of weeks, while a megaship holding more than 1,000 passengers returned free and clear. But why?
It was sad news for the travel industry when, seemingly one after another, small-ship lines that had attempted to safely relaunch during the pandemic were stricken with cases. Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen, Paul Gauguin Cruises’ Paul Gauguin, SeaDream Yacht Club’s SeaDream I and UnCruise Adventures’ Wilderness Adventurer all experienced varying degrees of COVID-19 cases. By comparison, German-based TUI Cruises’ Mein Schiff 2 (and its 1,200 passengers) were seemingly fine.
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The hardest hit was Hurtigruten, with 41 crew and 21 guests testing positive from exposure onboard Roald Amundsen. The other three lines and their ships only recorded one passenger case each.
With 62 total cases on Hurtigruten, a large quantity of false positives is improbable, but it’s possible that faulty, or at least inconsistent, individual testing held other small-ship operations back.
For UnCruise, the passenger tested negative within four days before flying into Alaska but was positive upon arrival, as notified after setting sail and prompting the voyage to end prematurely. A retest has since cleared this guest as negative yet again. Similarly, the passenger on Paul Gauguin had tested negative within 72 hours prior to flying to French Polynesia but positive on the ship. And the guest on SeaDream came back positive only after returning home. (The latter three individuals were all asymptomatic, too.)
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While a false positive test result could be considered the culprit in one or more of these instances, UnCruise is not drawing that conclusion for its own case.
“The reality isn’t that simple,” said Dan Blanchard, UnCruise owner and CEO, during a press conference. “I have to call it a positive until it’s proven otherwise.”
His reasoning derives mostly from doctors who indicate that there are more false negatives than there are false positives of the coronavirus. Still, with zero transmission occurring onboard, the brand considers the abbreviated sailing a success in safety.
In fact, TUI’s uneventful voyage might point to health protocols on par with UnCruise. Furthermore, Dream Cruises’ Explorer Dream, another foreign carrier and vessel, is also sailing safely with its median count of around 900 guests.
Cynics might think it’s possible that there are asymptomatic passengers on Explorer Dream and Mein Schiff 2, and that they are just slipping by (potentially due to sheer volume and less scrutiny per passenger). But it’s not a certainty given Dream’s own rigorous protocols.
On the flip side, colleagues of mine have pointed out the possibility for a false sense of security onboard small ships, fearing that their measures might not be taken as seriously. (But UnCruise certainly believes otherwise.)
In either case, other larger players, such as AIDA Cruises, Costa Cruises and MSC Cruises have received approval to start sailing overseas in the near future. So, it will be interesting to monitor how they do during the pandemic. MSC just outlined its stringent health measures (including testing at the pier immediately before boarding) — which may be, without any lapses, its ace in the hole.
Blanchard agrees, saying that “reliable, rapid testing with a four-hour return or less” would have been ideal in UnCruise’s case, and will surely make a difference moving forward.
That’s all to say that COVID-19 may not be a death knell for megaships. In fact, they may be better prepared, thanks to more robust onboard medical facilities and ample room to isolate any sick guests or crew.
As more ships take to the waters, there’s no doubt that time will be the judge.