Fresh blow for cruise industry as passenger on ship in the South Pacific tests positive

Guests are confined to their cabins on Paul Gauguin following the positive coronavirus test
Guests are confined to their cabins on Paul Gauguin following the positive coronavirus test

A cruise ship in the South Pacific has been forced to return to shore after a case of coronavirus was confirmed on board.

Paul Gauguin Cruises’ eponymous vessel, the sole ship in its fleet, only resumed holidays on June 29 following an industry-wide pause in operations. 

The vessel began its current voyage in Papeete, capital of French Polynesia, with around 350 on board – including passengers and crew – and was sailing between Bora Bora and the Rangiroa islands when an on-board doctor diagnosed Covid-19. It has now returned to Tahiti, and Telegraph Travel understands the affected passenger has been taken ashore along with their family. Local media reports that the positive case is an American tourist, and that her family have tested negative.

There are a number of measures in place on the ship to thwart the spread of Covid-19, including a reduction in capacity and the removal of buffet meals. At embarkation, all passengers who have been in the country for less than two weeks are required to produce a negative Covid-19 test as well as undergo a health check on board. The cruise line, which is a subsidiary of French operator Ponant, has been contacted for comment.

The news is a further blow to the beleaguered cruise industry and comes after at least 40 passengers and crew who had been on board MS Roald Amundsen in Norway tested positive for the virus. Of the ship’s 158 staff, 36 are infected. 

All the guests who sailed on MS Roald Amundsen’s July 17 and 24 trips have been contacted – almost 400 in total, who will now be asked to self-isolate. The ship is now empty and docked in Tromsø.

Hurtigruten's MS Roald Amundsen has been docked, empty of crew and passengers, after an outbreak of coronavirus Credit: EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTOCK

Hurtigruten, the Norwegian cruise line that owns the ship, has now suspended all sailings on MS Roald Amundsen, MS Fridtjof Nansen and MS Spitsbergen until further notice, with its chief executive, Daniel Skjeldam, calling the move the “responsible choice”.

All crew had been routinely tested before the positive cases were confirmed, the line said, and it is now helping affected guests with accommodation, food and other requirements.

“We are now focusing all available efforts in taking care of our guests and colleagues. We work closely with the Norwegian national and local health authorities for follow-up, information, further testing, and infection tracking,” said Rune Thomas Ege, Hurtigruten’s vice-president of global communications.

Norway’s national public health institute has not ruled out further cases in connection with this outbreak but stressed they would “only have the answer once the tests have been carried out”.

Hurtigurten announced last month that it planned to offer UK cruises from September, making it the first operator to step forward with a plan to resume itineraries in Britain.

Subsequently the Foreign Office updated its advice to warn against any ocean-going cruises, putting the domestic voyages in doubt. In Italy, Costa Cruises – which is due to resume operations this month – reported that three crew members have tested positive during routine checks. The line said their staff were “in isolation and in good health”.

What does this mean for cruises?

Dave Monk, Telegraph Cruise expert, says:

It was the news the cruise industry needed like a hole in the hull.

Headlines about suspected coronavirus cases on the Roald Amundsen and Paul Gauguin ships again raised the spectre of cruising being linked to the risk of disease. 

Cheers from cruise lovers when Hurtigruten resumed sailings on June 16 – followed by other lines in France, Germany, Greece and elsewhere – turned to groans as the familiar taunts of ‘floating Petri dishes’ once more began to populate social media.

In the US, the major cruise lines are fighting to persuade the Centers for Disease Control to allow them to operate again with enhanced health and hygiene protocols. So far only one ship has sailed – the 37-passenger UnCruise boat Wilderness Adventurer, which left Juneau, Alaska, on Saturday.

CLIA, the international body representing the cruise industry, will be keen to distance itself from the outbreak on Hurtigruten – which isn’t a member – and emphasise its own voluntary suspension of cruising in US waters until September 15, now superseded by the CDC extending its no-sail ban until the end of next month.

The cruise industry, more than many others, knows it takes just one bad headline to undo months of hard work preparing in minute detail how to return safely and once again provide enjoyable holidays for millions of people. 

John Delaney, the former president of Windstar Cruises, wrote this morning: “While I understand the economics, It is unfortunate that a few cruise lines appear to have ignored science in an attempt to resume service too quickly. 

“These are the first revenue cruises to resume and already Covid and cruise ships are back in the news in the first week. Everyone wants cruises to come back, but rushing things to chase revenue and ignoring the science will continue to hurt our industry and make the road to recovery more difficult.”

As the critics have a field day, another major hurdle has been placed in the way of cruising fully coming back.