As the calendar turned over to January 1, 2020, out on the world’s oceans, it looked set to be another glorious year for cruising.
Thousands of passengers were seeing in the New Year at sea, perhaps toasting the stroke of midnight — ship’s time — with a glass of champagne.
Many hundreds of thousands more, still ashore, were looking ahead to cruise adventures they’d spent years saving for.
Crew members readied for a year of working at sea, and those at the helm of the cruise industry anticipated another successful year, with profits sure to continue on an upward trajectory and bigger and better ships ready for launch.
Then, in the space of a few disastrous weeks, everything changed.
A travel pastime that sold itself on the gentle pace of its voyages began unraveling at breakneck pace.
February 4, 2020: Outbreak onboard
In early February, the coronavirus was making headlines around the world, but many viewed the infection as a regional problem mostly afflicting China, with a few other isolated cases.
One of those cases had been aboard the Diamond Princess — a 16-year-old British-registered cruise ship operated by Princess Cruises, a division of the Carnival Corporation.
When a passenger with suspected coronavirus disembarked the Diamond Princess, Covid-19 remained. By the time health authorities boarded in Japanese waters on February 4, 10 people on board were confirmed positive for coronavirus.
Amid fears many more among the 2,666 mostly Japanese passengers were exposed, the ship was quarantined in the Port of Yokohama. Guests were forbidden to disembark, told to wear masks and confined to their cabins.
As the world looked on in horror, the disease began to do its worst.
The ship quickly became a byword for the severity of Covid-19, a severity much of the planet was only just started to take in. When cases per nation flashed up on TV screens, the Diamond Princess had the highest number outside mainland China.
Later, over 700 passengers and crew on board the Diamond Princess would test positive, with 331 of them asymptomatic at the time.
The besieged vessel also offered the first inkling of just how badly cruise ships were susceptible to the virility of Covid-19 — and how cruise companies would struggle to offload people from their vast floating palaces into panicked ports.
But it was only February, and this was just one ship.
As the Diamond Princess remained in lockdown, other cruise ships continued their routes largely as planned. Many had already been in service for months, were the midst of months-long world cruises crisscrossing the Earth’s oceans.
Some itineraries were adjusted to avoid Asian ports, but even if passengers had concerns, they were often locked into concrete plans made months or years previously.
“We had hesitations,” said passenger Jay Martinez, who boarded the Norwegian Jewel along with his newlywed wife Carmen on February 28.
Changing plans, he told CNN, wasn’t an option offered by the cruise company.
“With us having so much money invested into our honeymoon, we had no other choice but to board the ship.”
Meanwhile, cruise experts offered reassurances. Everything, they said, was probably going to be OK.
But that’s not how it turned out.
March 13, 2020: The virus ships
As March rolled in, it was increasingly clear that the Diamond Princess disaster was no isolated incident.
Cruise ships carry thousands of passengers and workers in close proximity and stop in ports across the world. Their internal ventilation systems were already seen as possible propagators of infection. The vessels seemed to be unwitting Covid catalysts.
As parts of the world began to batten down the hatches against coronavirus, introducing region-wide and then nation-wide lockdowns and travel bans, cruise ships were pinpointed as accelerating the spread.
A report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that between February 3 and March 13, about 200 Covid cases in the US were linked to cruise passengers, including cruisers from the Diamond Princess and the Grand Princess, where 21 people had tested positive while the ship was docked in California.
At the time of the CDC’s March report, cruise passengers accounted for about 17% of the reported US Covid cases.
On March 13, influential industry body Cruise Lines International Association, which represents 95% of the global cruise fleet, made the decision to suspend operations from US ports of call for 30-day period.
A day later, the CDC issued a No Sail Order for cruise ships in the United States.
So began a global scramble for safe harbor, ships dotted across the world’s oceans had to make quick decisions on how best to get passengers and crew safely to land.
March 27, 2020: The scramble for safety
With the No Sail Order in place, some on board wanted to disembark right away.
CJ Hayden, a passenger on the Pacific Princess at the time, told CNN she feared being stuck at sea after the US closed its borders.
“The ship can’t go any faster,” she said.
But with cruise ships being viewed with increasing suspicion by many of the ports that once welcomed them, many vessels were locked into an increasingly desperate hunt for somewhere to berth.
The Norwegian Jewel — the 92,000-tonne pride of the Norwegian Cruise Line capable of carrying more than 2,300 passengers — was among those stranded at sea. Turned away by French Polynesia, Fiji and New Zealand, the vessel eventually opted for a long journey back to Hawaii.
On board, 20-something Jay Martinez became an envoy for less tech-savvy passengers who struggled to get hold of loved ones on land.
He tried to stay positive, bonding with passengers from across the world, sharing updates from their various home countries.
He was proud, he told CNN, of the “mini community” they had created on board the Jewel. He felt it showed how nations could come together in the face of the pandemic.
Still, he also felt keenly the “unknown and ambiguity of what our fate is going to be.”
Christine Beehler, 72, from New Hampshire, was on board the Coral Princess, a 2,000-passenger ship that was denied a port of call in Brazil, even for guests who had onward flight tickets home.
With no other option available, the ship headed to Miami.
“The four walls get a little tiring,” Beehler, isolated in her cabin, told CNN at the time. She said she was in regular communication with other passengers and they kept each other’s spirits, and she also praised the captain for being “very forthcoming with his transparency” and called the crew “phenomenal.”
There were 12 reported positive cases and three passenger deaths from Covid-19 on board the Coral Princess. Owner Princess Cruises said it could not confirm how many contracted the virus on the ship or died after they left it
Meanwhile, Holland America’s Zaandam was sailing a South American voyage originally supposed to conclude in San Antonio, Chile, on March 21.
It was still at sea six days later, with four passengers dead and fears growing for the safety of the others, unable to find a safe port.
Meantime, another Holland America ship, Rotterdam, had rendezvoused with the stricken ship to offer supplies, support and Covid tests.
Healthy guests and crew were transferred from the Zaandam, but when passengers from both ships disembarked in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on April 2, there were people with influenza-like symptoms on both vessels.
Australian dancer Ashleigh Perrie was on board Zaandam. She later told CNN it had been a “real test of mental resilience.”
“We had a lot of faith in each other, on board. Obviously, you had to stick with your fellow crew and get each other through the crisis. It was tough, but it was a very, very character strengthening experience, I think.”
While passengers were able to disembark Rotterdam and Zaandam in Florida, crew were forbidden to leave the ships. Instead, Holland America sailed workers across the Atlantic to disembark in the Netherlands.
Perrie eventually arrived home in Australia weeks later. Quarantined in a Perth hotel room for two weeks, she got creative, fashioning outfits out of the brown paper bags that delivered her three daily meals.
April 22, 2020: The final journeys
By early April, most major cruise ships had managed to make landfall. But a handful of vessels were still out on the oceans, determinedly steaming toward their final ports of call.
It wasn’t until the week of April 20 that the last three major cruise ships still carrying guests docked at port.
In Marseille, France, the MSC Magnifica disembarked its 1,769 passengers, ending a world voyage that began back in January and had, since March 10, only involved stops to take on fuel and provisions.
That same day, April 20, the Pacific Princess cruise ship arrived in Los Angeles. While most of its passengers had returned home after disembarking in Australia in March, 119 travelers had remained on board for medical reasons until the ship reached the United States.
And finally, on April 22, the Costa Deliziosa — which left Venice for a round world cruise all the way back on January 5 — made it home with 1,519 travelers in tow.
Amid the slew of bad cruise news, the fact there were no reported cases of Covid-19 on the Deliziosa, Magnifica or the Pacific Princess was hailed as remarkable.
As Deliziosa’s captain, Nicolò Alba, revealed to CNN, his ship had faced tough choices as ports began to close while it was navigating Australian waters — on the other side of the world from its final destination.
Alba and his team decided the ship wouldn’t attempt to disembark passengers at any further ports, instead they’d sail back to Europe, following their original itinerary, but without stopping for any reason other than to stock up on supplies.
“It was a right choice,” Alba told CNN. “Because in the end the ship proved to be the safest place to be for them.”
Luca Melone, the Deliziosa’s hotel director, pledged to keep the voyage as enjoyable as possible, continuing entertainment offerings for those on board.
No one had been off the ship since early March, so the team felt confident they were Covid safe. Melone says he was “more worried about what was happening outside the ship than what was happening on board.”
“Since we left, on 5 January in Venice, the world has completely changed,” said Alba.
When the Deliziosa arrived in Genoa, dancer Conny Seidler was one of the first crew members to leave the ship.
She was sad to see her livelihood end, she told CNN, but, conscious of the controversy surrounding many cruise lines keeping employees grounded on ships, grateful to be returning to loved ones.
May 5, 2020: The forgotten victims
By May, with most cruise passengers home, the focus shifted.
For much of the crisis, cruise ship crew had been largely silent, prohibited from speaking out by their contracts.
But months into the pandemic, even though passengers had been safely repatriated, many workers were still trapped on board, often without pay.
On May 5, there were more than 57,000 crew members aboard 74 ships in and around US ports and the Bahamas and the Caribbean, according to the US Coast Guard. Many more hundreds were stuck on vessels elsewhere across the world’s oceans.
“I feel that the cruise ship industry, we’re being vilified,” MaShawn Morton, a Princess Cruise employee on board the Sky Princess, told CNN in May, having been moored at the Port of Miami since March 14 after passengers were offloaded but crew told to self-isolate.
“I feel like we’re being scapegoated. In reality, it’s more certain that I’m healthy and have been under stricter conditions on board a ship than anybody in the States has been.”
At first, he recalled, the mood was positive, and crew were happy to still be paid. But after a month or so, crew questioned why they hadn’t been allowed to leave.
As the situation worsened, there were reports on other ships of crew suicides and protests, confirmed by cruise lines. One crew member from the Regal Princess cruise ship died on May 9 after going overboard in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. Rotterdam police confirmed to CNN that the death was ruled a suicide.
On the Majesty of the Seas, docked outside of Miami, photos surfaced on social media showed protesting crew, and a sign hanging on the pool deck reading “How many more suicides you need?”
The situation on Majesty was resolved after a meeting with the captain and executive team, said Royal Caribbean spokesperson Jonathon Fishman.
“We are being treated as cargo,” said Caio Saldanha, a DJ from Brazil who worked for Celebrity Cruises, owned by Royal Caribbean. Saldanha spoke to CNN in May, from the Celebrity Equinox ship in the Bahamas.
“We need help,” he said.
Many cruise lines provided free therapy for crew and assured CNN they were doing their best to get people home amid a complicated global situation, but campaigner Krista Thomas called the situation a “humanitarian crisis.”
June 8, 2020: The last ship at sea
While the Deliziosa was the last ship to disembark scores of guests, there was one more passenger-carrying vessel still at sea.
On June 8, the MV Artania cruise ship ended its oceanic odyssey, delivering eight guests to a world vastly changed from the one it had left on December 21, 2019.
Coronavirus had caught up with the Artania back in March — 36 passengers tested positive for the virus following a check from health officials when the ship arrived in in Fremantle, Western Australia.
Three who were on the ship died. Artania’s healthy guests were quarantined on board and the majority of the passengers disembarked and then flown home at the end of March.
But eight passengers decided to travel back to Germany via the ocean. These travelers were subsequently granted the surreal status of becoming the last cruise ship passengers at sea.
It was a remarkable story, characterized by kindness as well as struggle. Before the MV Artania left Australia, its crew received postcards from Australian school children. The idea was to forge a connection between the quarantined workers — marred by the cruise industry’s declining reputation — and a panicked city feeling increasingly threatened by cruise ships and the Covid threat.
And right before the ship left Perth, two crew members brought together by these extraordinary circumstances decided to tie the knot and were married in a ceremony officiated by the Germany’s honorary consul in Western Australia.
En route from Australia to Europe, the Artania took a detour around Southeast Asia in order to repatriate its remaining crew. A small number of workers accompanied the remaining passengers back to Germany.
June 23, 2020: The rise of the ghost ships
By the end of June, cruising had ground to a halt and the world’s cruise fleet was largely out of action, laid up in ports across the world.
In the UK, vessels dotted along England’s southwest coast haunted the horizon, with only a skeletal crew on board, becoming an unlikely tourist attraction.
Entrepreneurial Brit, Paul Derham, who’d worked on cruise ships for 27 years, started running 2.5 hour “ghost ship” tours that sailed within 50 meters of some of the vessels. Derham used his intimate knowledge of the cruise industry to entertain vast numbers of tour-goers unable to vacation outside the UK due to ongoing travel restrictions.
Passenger Kate Dingley took the video below while on the tour.
Over the uncharacteristically hot British summer, ships spotted off the coast of Derham’s home town of Mudeford included Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas, Jewel of the Seas and Allure of the Seas — gigantic floating cities that normal carry thousands of people.
The tours have halted for now due to wintery weather, but with the cruise industry still in flux, and vessels still parked in ports across the world, Derham plans to reinstate his now world-famous tours in Spring 2021.
August 16, 2020: The return
As European travel restrictions loosened and lockdowns lifted in light of fewer Covid cases, some European cruise companies tentatively recommenced cruising.
On August 16, the MSC Grandiosa departed the port of Genoa, Italy for a seven-day Mediterranean cruise characterized by Covid testing, social distancing, hand sanitizing and temperature checks. There were some 3,000 Italian cruisers on board, with the Grandiosa operating at about 60% of its 6,300 passenger capacity.
The ship, which remained virus-free, was held up as proof regulations could help protect cruisers.
Preboarding tests weeded out one embarking passenger who was diagnosed with Covid. Meanwhile, during the voyage, one family which broke the rules regarding the tightly controlled port sojourns was denied reboarding.
“I think cruises could be the safest holiday, right now,” passenger Valeria Belardi, a travel agent, told CNN.
But some smaller cruise lines that also restarted operations in Europe failed to remain Covid-free. Some 41 crew and 21 guests tested positive for Covid-19 after sailing on small Norwegian cruise ship MS Roald Amundsen.
But the drive to reignite the industry remained high.
“We know that for every 1% drop in cruising that occurs worldwide, up to 9,100 jobs can be lost,” Bari Golin-Blaugrund, a spokeswoman for industry body Cruise Lines International Association, told CNN in the summer.
Meanwhile, many cruise fans didn’t seem put off by the pandemic and its consequences. Christine Beehler, who’d tested positive for Covid-19 after disembarking the Coral Princess cruise ship in April 2020, told CNN in the summer that she was ready to cruise again, even without access to a vaccine.
October 2, 2020: The end of the line
Although a handful of Europe-based cruise ships cautiously returned to the seas, most big vessels remained out of action. Laid up in ports across the world, some, such as Richard Branson’s Scarlet Lady Virgin Voyages vessel, had yet to even have their inaugural voyage.
Meanwhile, cruise ships were still being built, the soaring growth of the industry over the past 10 years resulting in a backlog of requests for vessels.
The result? Many cruise lines found themselves with an excess of ships. These same companies also reported severe financial losses after months of canceled trips. Some cruise fans complained to CNN about companies holding onto their money even as future voyages seemed some way off.
So ships started to be offloaded. Holland America had already announced plans to sell four of its 14 ships, including virus-hit Rotterdam.
UK company Fred Olsen Cruise Lines bought Rotterdam, alongside another Holland American ship, Amsterdam. Managing Director Peter Deer told CNN he saw the decision as a mark of confidence in the cruise industry.
Nevertheless, the market for buying cruise ships wasn’t what it once was.
“I don’t know that many cruise lines in the world are looking to buy ships right now,” said Bill Miller, a prolific cruise ship historian. “I would say that would be very unlikely. The next best buyer would be the scrappers.”
Other sold cruise ships were earmarked for demolition, ending up in breaking yards such as Gadani, near the Pakistan port of Karachi, or Alang, India, where they were systematically torn apart.
Striking images taken on October 2 by Getty photographer Chris McGrath revealed once-gleaming vessels lying dilapidated at Aliaga shipyard in Turkey, barely recognizable from their seafaring glory days.
Drone photographs of the shipyard depicted zombie cruise liners — half impressive vessel, and half skeleton and debris.
Still-intact swimming pools and a bright green onboard golf course formed an eerie contrast with the growing wreckage. On one ship, a Carnival Cruise Line red funnel was almost all that remained.
Freelance cruise journalist Peter Knego has visited the shipyard of Alang nine times and has also traveled to another shipbreaking yard in Aliaga, Turkey.
“On the 10-mile stretch of beach, up to 200 ships can be demolished at one time, making it look like Armageddon or something out of a science fiction movie,” said Knego of the experience. “Tankers share the sands with cruise ships, ferries, container ships and even outmoded oil derricks.”
“To see such large objects on a beach being demolished in an otherwise natural setting is both fascinating and heartbreaking,” he said.
November 17, 2020: The Caribbean Covid return
While cruises had carefully recommenced in Europe, the seas around the United States remained empty of cruise goers.
But in the fall, new regulations were announced for cruising’s return to US waters, right as the CDC’s ban on cruising was lifted at the end of October.
The Framework for Conditional Sailing Order for Cruise Ships championed universal mask wearing, physical distancing and Covid-19 testing.
Cruise companies were also told they must run “simulated voyages” designed “to replicate real world onboard conditions of cruising” if they wanted to get permission to restart operations.
The lengthy guidelines meant big cruise lines, many of which had already canceled voyages throughout 2020 and beyond, were even less likely to recommence regularly scheduled US voyages.
Royal Caribbean invited fans interested in going on mock voyages to express interest via its “Volunteers of the Seas” Facebook page. In November, the cruise line said 10,000-plus people had reached out.
But on November 17, hopes of salvaging something of the US cruise industry’s 2020 season appeared to be scuppered further when seven passengers tested positive for Covid-19 aboard the 112-guest SeaDream 1 cruise ship, the first vessel to sail in the Caribbean since the pandemic began.
The idea was that testing passengers in advance of travel and before boarding would shut out any risk of Covid on board and passengers were initially not required to wear masks, passenger Gene Sloan, a reporter for The Points Guy, told CNN from his locked down cabin.
On November 24, the CDC upped its warning on cruise ships, advising that “all people” should avoid traveling on them.
December 9, 2020: The cruise to nowhere
By the end of 2020, any hope for restarting cruising in the near future had been dashed. The CDC’s ban might have lifted, but the SeaDream 1 crisis had reverberated through the industry.
And in Europe, Covid cases were on the rise, impacting the Mediterranean cruises that seemed so promising months earlier.
Countries returned to strict lockdowns, borders closed. Costa and MSC’s upcoming Mediterranean voyages were canceled in light of the new Italian lockdown set to last until early 2021.
In Singapore, the city-state’s tourism board partnered with Genting Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean to organize a series pleasure cruises to nowhere.
The cruises were only for Singaporeans, who have been unable to leave the city-state for months. Travelers needed to show a negative Covid-19 test prior to boarding. Masks were enforced, as was social distancing and the ships operated at 50% capacity.
But on board Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas in December, an 83-year-old passenger tested positive for Covid on December 9, halting the voyage and causing his close contacts to be quarantined.
Although he later tested negative, with the first test result characterized as a false positive, the ship had been forced to return to port and its passengers disembarked.
While the passenger’s negative result allowed the Quantum to avoid the fate of the Diamond Princess or its Covid-hit counterparts, it marked a downbeat end of an already devastating year for cruising.
Looking ahead to 2021, the promise of vaccines seems to be the only key that could safely unlock the industry. It remains to be seen whether a tourism sector that was once so buoyant will ever reclaim the seas with confidence it once had.