The Ruby Princess (Image: Wikimedia/Piergiuliano Chesi)

The fallout from the Ruby Princess disaster continues to haunt Australia, with a significant portion of our COVID-19 cases now connected with the cruise liner.

As several more ships circle Australian ports, governments face the challenge of what to do with passengers. COVID-19 has brought the cruise ship industry to its knees. But is that a bad thing?

The numbers

More than two weeks ago, the federal government put a 30-day ban on new cruise ships docking in Australia. But exceptions were made for those already headed to port.

One of those was the Ruby Princess, a name now synonymous with staggering incompetence and a communications breakdown between state and federal authorities that allowed hundreds of infections to spread across Australia.

As of today, over 500 passengers across Australia (including in NSW, 337 passengers plus 3 crew), had tested positive to COVID-19, accounting for more than 10% of Australia’s cases.

Cruise ships are also the source of eight of Australia’s 23 COVID-19 deaths (at the time of writing), with five coming from the Ruby Princess. Meanwhile, in Western Australia, 41 people with the virus have recently been medivaced off the Artania, a German ship docked in Fremantle — accounting for 10% of all cases in the state. There are 74 cases linked to Ovation of the Seas in NSW, 39 cases (34 passengers, 5 crew) linked to Voyager of the Seas and 11 linked to the Celebrity Solstice.

The standoff

The WA government and the crew of the Artania are at loggerheads over the ship. The state government and Australian Border Force want it gone, but the crew want to stay another two weeks.

Premier Mark McGowan is worried that letting it dock will encourage more boats. While the passengers have been evacuated, some 450 crew members remain on board.

There are reportedly 18 foreign cruise ships docked or floating in Australian waters, with 15,000 crew members still on board. Many have been docked for weeks, refusing to leave.

To break the deadlock, NSW is planning to helicopter doctors onto ships docked in the state and test more than 8000 crew members, an operation which would involve the military.

Cruise operators argue that leaving people at risk on ships is a humanitarian crisis — most are highly underpaid foreign workers, who would need to be repatriated.

It’s big business, but for how long?

Before the pandemic, there was a lot of money in cruises. In 2018, the three biggest players earned US$34 billion in revenue. Australia’s tourism industry has also banked on letting the boats in.

Two years ago, then-federal minister for tourism Steve Ciobo described Sydney as “Australia’s cruise gateway”.

“More ships means more tourists which will help drive economic growth and create new jobs,” Ciobo said.

Cruise Lines International Association Australia claims the industry contributes $3 billion in direct expenditures with a flow-on of $1.3 billion in other services, and more than 10,000 jobs.

Many newspapers also lean heavily on the industry for advertising dollars. On March 14, when cruise cancellations were starting to pick up in Australia and coronavirus deaths in Italy were already in the thousands, The Sydney Morning Herald still ran more than 12 cruise line ads, even as headlines in the paper described the country as heading toward lockdown.

An ad featured in The Sydney Morning Herald

Now, cruise shares have fallen up to 80% and thousands of staff have been laid off. But should we be mourning cruise liners? As The Hustle points out, the industry is built on exploitation and tax evasion. Many ships are registered in Caribbean countries like the Bahamas to minimise tax and avoid Western labour laws.

Workers, largely from south-east Asia and eastern Europe, are paid a pittance — usually between $1-2 an hour.

It’s this structural feature of the cruise industry that makes demands by Australian authorities that the ships “return home” all the more complicated.

A company like Carnival is headquartered in Miami, incorporated in Panama, and has a workforce from across the developing world. Where is home for ships and their crew?

So amid all the finger pointing about stopping the boats, it’s worth noting that it’s underpaid workers, not middle class suburban boomers, who are suffering the most; stuck on disease-ridden ships in foreign waters with no clear way of getting home.

Lethal comforts

Maybe something can be gleaned from a classic piece of writing on cruise ships: “Shipping Out” by late author David Foster Wallace, published in Harper’s Magazine in 1996.

For a week Foster Wallace took a cruise around the Caribbean. His resulting slide into what the article dubs “the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise” is one of the great pieces of writing on the subject

“The vessel and facilities were, from what I now understand of the industry’s standards, absolutely top-hole. The food was beyond belief, the service unimpeachable, the shore excursions and shipboard activities organized for maximal stimulation down to the tiniest detail. The ship was so clean and white it looked boiled. The western Caribbean’s blue varied between baby-blanket and fluorescent; likewise the sky. Temperatures were uterine. The very sun itself seemed preset for our comfort. The crew-to-passenger ratio was 1.2 to 2. It was a Luxury Cruise.

“All of the megalines offer the same basic product-not a service or a set of services but more like a feeling: a blend of relaxation and stimulation, stressless indulgence and frantic tourism, that special mix of servility and condescension that’s marketed under configurations of the verb ‘to pamper’.

“This verb positively studs the megalines’ various brochures: ‘as you’ve never been pampered before’, ‘to-pamper yourself in our jacuzzis and saunas’; ‘Let us pamper you’, ‘Pamper yourself in the warm zephyrs of the Bahamas’. The fact that adult Americans tend to associate the word ‘pamper’ with a certain other consumer product is not an accident, I think, and the connotation is not lost on the mass-market megalines and their advertisers.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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