The Covid-19 pandemic has effectively sunk the cruise ship industry’s 2020. Cruise lines around the world have their fleets at anchor. Many ships, however, are not deserted: they still have their crew members, who say the companies are doing precious little to repatriate them.
Cruise lines were forced to halt their operations after countries closed their borders to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Some ships were the very stage of outbreaks. While cruise lines were feverishly trying to find solutions for tourists stuck aboard, there seems to be less haste in repatriating crew members.
Such is the situation on the Caribbean Princess, a large cruise ship from Princess Cruises, part of Carnival Corp. As of this writing, dozens of South Americans are stuck on the ship, forced to stay inside their cabins even though their contracts were terminated at the moment the outbreak began. Among them are 31 Chilean crew members.
Chile Today spoke with two Chileans aboard the Caribbean Princess. Ten days ago, their ship finally left Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to repatriate crew members to their respective countries. Although Princess Cruises denies, the Chileans aboard (who wish to remain anonymous) say the company is cares little about repatriating its staff. Said one, “We were told these ships will do repatriation voyages to take us home, but we feel our company is being as cheap as it gets, because it is cheaper to use the ships on these awfully long voyages rather than fly us home. To save fuel the ship is moving at 9 knots, at half speed.”
“Some People May Need to Remain Onboard In An Unpaid Status”
When Princess Cruises stopped its operations, the crew members received a letter of termination from the company. All contracts would end on May 10, and wages would be paid until June 6. The letter stated: “As contracts end, we will make every effort to repatriate [crew members] home, understanding that current travel restrictions may significantly limit our ability to make this happen, and some people may need to remain onboard in an unpaid status as described below.”
Ever since, the Chileans on board of the Caribbean Princess have sought a way out. After more than a month floating at sea, the fleet of Princess Cruises came to anchor in the waters near Florida, where the group reached out to the Chilean consulate in Miami, Florida. For several weeks, the consulate claims to have tried to get the Chileans off the ship, but that restrictions imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Florida were a major obstacle. The Chilean consulate could not be reached for comment.
Princess Cruises, in the meantime, offered a similar excuse: the CDC would not allow people to disembark and fly home without permits. The Chilean crew members questioned the excuse. “There is no consistency about these rules, as randomly certain groups of nationalities have been sent home [by plane] from Florida.”
The Miami Herald wrote late April about a similar situation with the ships of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. According to the newspaper, “Cruise companies are allowed to disembark and repatriate people still trapped on ships around the U.S. by private transportation as long as their executives sign an agreement with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that holds the companies accountable for the process. They are refusing to do so.” The article added that cruise company officials complained that arranging private transportation for disembarking crew members was “too expensive.”
That repatriation is actually possible, became all the more clear on Apr. 8, one night before the Caribbean Princess left the water surrounding Florida. Approximately 190 Peruvian crew members were allowed to leave with a charter flight. For the Chilean crew, it presented a rare moment of hope. “When we heard they were leaving, we thought the minuscule number of Chileans (25 of us) could leave, too, with them, but nothing. The Peruvians leaving by plane is proof that it was possible to leave by air from the United States.”
Seeking a Way Out
The ship is now currently anchored in the Bahamas. The Chileans aboard have contacted the Minister of Foreign Affairs, asking for a repatriation flight. In the email to the minister, obtained by Chile Today, the crew members beg for a solution. The itinerary of the ship presented to Chile Today shows that destinations and dates change by the week and that there is very little focus on repatriating South Americans: the ship seems to float between Caribbean destinations, from Trinidad to Cartagena (Colombia) to Costa Rica and back to Mexico.
Chile Today contacted Princess Cruises. The company writes, “We are deeply committed to reuniting our shipboard team members with their families safely and continue to make progress with arranging travel to their home countries.” There is no mention about the length of such travels or the avoidance of costs. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond despite various requests from Chile Today.
The situation aboard the Caribbean Princess doesn’t stand alone. As of May 9, “there were still more than 70,000 crew remaining aboard idle cruise ships in U.S. waters alone, according to the U.S. Coast Guard,” reports USA Today.
The wait is taking its toll on crew members. On May 10, a crew member of the Regal Princess, a ship anchored in front of the port of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, committed suicide over her hopeless situation. The Regal Princess is part of the Princess Cruises fleet and was tasked to bring home European crew members. The news of the death of a colleague aboard another ship hit the Chilean crew. Their daily routine consists of temperature checks before they are only allowed to leave their cabins to eat. “There is not a glimpse of hope for us, unless one of these consulates puts pressure on our company and facilitates a charter or allows us to fly on a commercial flight.”
Editor-In-Chief Boris van der Spek is the founder of Chile Today. He worked in Colombia, Surinam and the Netherlands as reporter and works with international media during major events, like the social crisis, the elections and the Pope’s visit.