Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Cruise news

And now, from the “counterintuitive” department, I’d like to suggest that there are ways in which COVID may actually prove a boon to the cruise industry.

It’s a theory I developed watching a “recovery of cruise” presentation from a November 2020 conference on “post-COVID” tourism in Cape Breton sponsored by CBU. The cruise panel consisted of  industry consultant Dr. Sheree-Ann Adams, Ambassatours’ Dennis Campbell and Port of Sydney CEO (and moderator) Marlene Usher — in short, three people whose livelihoods depend on the recovery of cruise.

I knew this line-up would not be conducive to a dispassionate consideration of the facts but even I wasn’t quite prepared for Adams’ presentation, which began with this “cruise industry recovery hope flowchart” which underlines that cruise had actually restarted (albeit on a small scale) before the last of the crew members stranded by COVID had been repatriated:

 

cruise recovery hope flowchart

 

Although Adams several times referenced the “MEDIA FRENZY!!!!!!!!!!!!” surrounding the industry in the early days of the pandemic, she didn’t get into the messy details of COVID outbreaks and deaths at sea and her reference to vessels being barred from docking in many countries was phrased this way:

Ships that were formerly purveyors of hope, with humanitarian aid and first visitors to our shores after natural disasters, such as hurricanes, were now being denied safe haven entry by many countries…

And just to drive home where her allegiances lie, Adams, whose husband works in the cruise industry and who is based in Southampton, England, presented against this Zoom background:

Dr. Sheree-Ann Adams

 

(There was apparently an audience for this panel but the Q&A portion inspired just one question, so I’m not sure how big — or engaged — that audience was.)

Adams said two things I feel are worth repeating. The first was this:

Several years ago, I conducted cruise consumer behavior research. Results indicated that price and product quality were cruise consumers top attributes of importance when choosing a cruise and risk – including health and safety – were among the last three attributes of importance.

That answers my question about why Nori virus (which sounds truly dreadful) never seemed to slow cruisers down. Since the advent of COVID, however:

US travelers now place “risk” as the highest attribute of importance.

But what really made me sit up and listen was this: Adams says the recovery of the cruise industry will — surprise, surprise — involve  governments and Port Authorities offering the cruise lines even more “incentives” to come to their ports and perhaps to stay there longer.

These incentives will include “allowing cruise ships to open onboard shops and casinos while in port,” something they are not permitted to do now precisely because these onboard shops and casinos are competition for the onshore versions.

cruise recovery zoom conference session

Clockwise from upper left: Dr. Sheree-Ann Adams, Marlene Usher, Dennis Campbell

But it gets better: when Usher updated CBRM council on cruise in November, she raised the possibility of “bubble” tourism without getting into any details but, as always, the details are where the devil is lurking.

“Bubble” tourism, says Adams, will mean that “shore excursions options will be limited to only those offered by the cruise lines to maintain health and safety bubbles.”

Meaning, no passengers wandering around downtown Sydney, visiting local shops or restaurants or hiring their own taxis to visit attractions.

Instead, passengers will have to book official cruise line excursions and, according to Dennis Campbell, whose company is one of two Halifax-based companies responsible for onshore excursions (the other being Atlantic Cruise Ship Service ), Ambassatours is “working with suppliers to have restaurants and attractions open only for one ship at a time, not to the general public.”

This presents the rather incredible possibility of publicly funded “attractions” like the Fortress of Louisbourg, the Iona Highland Village or the Alexander Graham Bell Museum being closed to all but the passengers of a particular cruise ship, a situation Usher calls “complex but do-able.”

This is also why I am suggesting COVID could prove a boon for the cruise lines — because they take an outsized share of the profits from cruise excursions and Campbell assures us that bookings for such excursions are up considerably. Passengers will literally have to pay the cruise line if they want to get off the boat. That’s cruise industry Nirvana.

Back in 2016, I wrote about the prices the cruise lines charge for day trips to places like the Fortress compared to the money they pay places like the Fortress (at that time, for example, cruise lines could pay as little as $6.30 per person at the Fortress, depending on the time of year and the type of discount they’d been granted).

Don’t get me wrong — I don’t see how cruise could resume safely without some sort of “bubble” approach, but I think we should consider all the implications of such an approach.

 

MSC Virtuosa

In other cruise news, during that November presentation to CBRM council, Usher quoted COVID figures that, as I reported this week, don’t jibe with those published by the CDC. Usher claimed that as of November, there had been just 239 confirmed cases on cruise ships, while the CDC reported 1,359 confirmed cases between June 26 October 21 alone.

Usher’s figures were from BA, a consultancy that forms part of the cruise industrial complex, and as Jim Walker, the lawyer behind Cruise Law Blog, says, cruise lines tend to under-report COVID cases. In his coverage of September COVID outbreaks on the MSC Virtuosa, he explained that MSC reports only cases confirmed on board the vessel, but as most cruises are seven days long and the COVID incubation period can be up to 14 days, it should also include people who test positive after disembarking.

MSC Virtuosa

(Source: MSC https://www.msccruisesusa.com/cruise/ships/msc-virtuosa)

Media reports about the MSC Virtuosa include the story of an 81-year-old passenger who died of COVID after disembarking and not one but two stories about Scottish couples who tested positive for the virus while on board.

The common thread running through all three accounts is that enforcement of COVID protocols on the vessel was lax — people weren’t required to wear masks, were allowed to congregate in large groups and to eat from a buffet. (The family of the man who died told the press that signs there’d been a COVID outbreak onboard included staff “suddenly wearing hazmat suits.”)

And it’s not that people weren’t vaccinated.

The CDC, in extending its conditional sailing order enforcing COVID protocols on vessels to January 2022, cited “public health concerns relating to the ongoing pandemic, emergence of variants of concerns such as the Delta variant, and breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated persons” for its decision and highlighted several large outbreaks on cruise ships:

On July 24, 2021, one symptomatic passenger who tested positive for COVID-19 on a cruise ship (Cruise Ship A) was epidemiologically linked to 20 additional laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 over two voyages, including 2 passengers and 18 crew. The COVID-19 vaccination rate on this ship ranged between 99.8–100% for crew and 96.4–97.5% for passengers.

Between August 19–September 7, a cruise ship (Cruise Ship E) reported 105 laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases among passengers and crew on a total of four consecutive voyages. This was a highly vaccinated ship with 100% of crew and an average of 97% of passenger fully vaccinated at the time on the voyage(s).

The CDC also says ensuring passengers are uninfected at embarkation has “proven difficult”:

For example, a passenger on a cruise ship (Cruise Ship F), who was fully vaccinated and had tested negative for COVID-19 three days before boarding, boarded the ship while symptomatic for COVID-19, but denied having symptoms. The passenger died three days after boarding for reasons related to COVID-19. This led to CDC and the cruise line taking the following public health actions:

  • Contact tracing to identify exposed persons, which included interviews of passengers and crew, review of security footage, and analysis of wearable technology and other relevant location data;
  • Notifications to close contacts to advise them to monitor for symptoms, and to federal, state, and local partners in two states;
  • Screening testing to identify those who could have been infected;
  • Isolation for close contacts who tested positive for COVID-19; and
  • Quarantine for close contacts who tested negative for COVID-19 but could have still developed the illness during the incubation period.

Based on these time-sensitive and labor-intensive public health actions, the cruise line identified over 30 close contacts from one infected passenger.

I would really like to see the CDC’s cruise recovery hope flowchart.

 

Betting on Annette

I flagged this week, in my efforts to listen to all 13 episodes of Annette Verschuren’s Bet on Me podcast — I got 29 minutes into the 46:31-minute-long fourth episode, “The Woodroad To Success: Building a business from a dream with founders Daryl and Peter MacDonnell,” but gave up when Verschuren — who was clearly running out of things to ask — starting posing questions like:

Tell me um, so what, what’s, I love, how many, how many people can you handle in this place?

Before the MacDonnells even had time to respond, I thought, “I don’t care” and turned the episode off.

Nothing against Peter and his brother Daryl (I mean, other than wishing there were another brother Daryl), who seem like nice men, but there’s only so much to say about a high-end eatery catering to the wealthy people who golf at Cabot Cliffs.

I’m guessing this is NOT an over-sized Funion.

Because that’s what Woodroad is — Daryl MacDonnell actually apologizes at one point for bringing up Cabot so much, but it really can’t be avoided because Peter got the idea for the place while caddying at the golf course for those “guys off of Wall Street.” (I guess we should be grateful he started a restaurant in a wooden building of his own construction — his background is in forestry — rather than a hedge fund specializing in wood futures).

Cabot clients inspired Woodroad and Cabot management encouraged it. As Verschuren explains, she and her husband Stan…

Wait, I need to quick time out to tell you that I’m thinking of trying a Bet on Me drinking game to get me through the final nine episodes. Every time Verschuren mentions her husband Stan, her immigrant parents, the farm she grew up on or fish guts — all of which she managed to work into this episode — I’ll do a shot of tequila. I’ll be sloshed, but so much happier. Okay, back to this week’s episode.

…Verschuren and her husband Stan host a Thanksgiving gathering at Cabot Cliffs and one year “Andrew” (Alkenbrack, the general manager at Cabot) suggested the group have a meal at Woodroad.

“So selfless,” said Verschuren.

“So selfless,” I repeated, banging my head against my desk.

Woodroad’s conceit is that it is a high-end restaurant with a casual atmosphere. It employs three people — two in the dining room and one in the kitchen.

Daryl, the chef, expresses great appreciation for the locals whose produce they use but gets the name of their fish suppliers wrong (Peter has to correct him) and says of another vendor:

There’s a young lady, and I apologize for not knowing her name, but she’s starting to play with Kobe beef here on the Island, and they’ve just opened a little creamery/dairy, again, I’m sorry about the name.

I found this jarring given this whole series is ostensibly about entrepreneurs like this “young lady.”

Anyway, as I said, I surrendered to my boredom 29 minutes in, so if you want to know more about Woodroad, you’ll have to invest 17 minutes and 31 seconds of your own life to finish listening to the podcast.

Notable Verschuren quotes: 

Of the Margaree: “It’s quite a river and no wonder it has so many beautiful spots.”

Of her preference for locally grown and produced food: “I want the pork closer to me”

Of Cabot: “And think of it, on top of an old coal mine. Building a golf course. That took guts too.”