Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas cruise ship is moored at Marina Bay Cruise Center after a passenger tested positive for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) during a cruise to nowhere, in Singapore, December 9, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

False-Positive COVID Diagnosis Shows Challenges of Cruise Shipping’s Return

Bloomberg
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December 9, 2020

By Kyunghee Park (Bloomberg) —

A Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. ship on a four-day pleasure trip was forced to return to port in Singapore and confine passengers in their cabins after a possibly false Covid-19 diagnosis, showing the challenges of reviving travel while the pandemic continues.

About 2,000 passengers on the Quantum of the Seas were stuck in their staterooms for more than half a day after being informed of a case by the captain at around 2:45 a.m. local time Wednesday. An elderly male passenger who tested positive was isolated and taken ashore to a hospital while officials traced his contacts on the boat.

But the Singapore Ministry of Health said later a retest of the original sample came back negative for Covid-19, as did a second sample. The ministry said it will run another test in a day. All close contacts with the passenger remain isolated as a precautionary measure.

The incident shows how difficult it will be to get the cruise industry up and running again, particularly with mass vaccination still a while off. Singapore has virtually eliminated local transmission, and so-called cruises to nowhere — voyages that depart and arrive back in the same destination after sailing offshore — were a key part of the tourism-reliant economy’s bid to restart the sector.

Cruise companies such as Royal Caribbean and Carnival Corp. have sought to shore up the safety of cruising so they can sail regularly again. Since outbreaks onboard early in 2020, the capital-intensive industry has been essentially on hold, with companies hemorrhaging cash just to maintain vessels until they can take paying customers again.

Cruise Ship break-up
A drone image shows decommissioned cruise ships being dismantled at Aliaga ship-breaking yard in the Aegean port city of Izmir, western Turkey, October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

The episode is also a further setback for Singapore, which is one of Asia’s top financial hubs but is also reliant on travel and tourism. Just last month a highly anticipated agreement between Singapore and Hong Kong that would have replaced quarantine with Covid-19 testing was scrapped due to rising case numbers in Hong Kong.

Singapore Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said the incident on the Quantum of the Seas was “not unexpected,” according to ChannelNewsAsia, and the government was prepared for such a situation.

The captain told passengers at around 3 p.m. the Covid patient had left the ship and a full cleaning would be undertaken, according to a Bloomberg reporter on board. The rest will be allowed to get off once contact tracing is complete, with disembarkation expected to begin at 7:30 p.m.

Passengers will have to take a rapid Covid-19 test upon leaving the ship, and another test two weeks later. Those deemed close contacts of the infected traveler will need to quarantine for 14 days at a designated facility.

“Royal Caribbean International’s Quantum of the Seas arrived at Marina Bay Cruise Centre Singapore at 8 a.m. today after an 83-year-old passenger tested positive for Covid-19,” said Annie Chang, cruise director at the Singapore Tourism Board. “The passenger had reported to the onboard medical center with diarrhea, and underwent a mandatory polymerase chain reaction test as part of the onboard protocols.”

All 1,680 passengers and 1,148 crew — including the man who fell ill — had tested negative when the ship departed on Dec. 7.

In a note to passengers Wednesday, Royal Caribbean said those stuck on board can smoke in their bathrooms, even though this is normally prohibited. The cruise, which is almost at allowed capacity, has a large number of families with small children aboard.

“We know this isn’t exactly how you planned to spend your cruise, and we are terribly sorry,” the note read. “Again, this is for your benefit and to ensure all guests remain healthy and well.”

Royal Caribbean and Genting Cruise Lines have been running cruises to nowhere as a way to restart and to give residents of Singapore an outlet for their wanderlust. The incident is a blow to that push, which included inviting reporters on board the Quantum to experience the new initiative.

Global Struggle

Other countries are also struggling to revive and reinvent their tourism sectors for the Covid era. Japan had to rein in an initiative that encouraged residents to travel domestically after tourist areas saw an uptick in infections. In Europe, the resumption of vacation travel in summer is thought to have fanned the current second wave.

Stringent protocols for cruise operators and passengers to permit the Singapore pilot voyages were established. These included the testing of crew and passengers, increased cleaning and fresh-air circulation measures. Cruises were also required to sail at a reduced passenger capacity of 50%.

The virus has now infected more than 68 million people globally and taken the lives of almost 1.6 million.

With international travel all but off limits, Singapore has been trying to come up with ways to stimulate its domestic economy. For sale are daycations at hotels plus luxury overnight camping at Changi Airport. The government has launched a domestic tourism campaign, with S$320 million ($240 million) in credits set aside to encourage residents to support local businesses. The S$100 vouchers, which have been sent to all Singaporeans ages 18 and above, can be used for attractions, hotel stays and tours.

–With assistance from Melissa Cheok, Faris Mokhtar and Jonathan Levin.© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P
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