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Drop Anchor: How COVID-19 Will Kill the Cruise Industry

Last week, Air Canada announced it was cutting its workforce by at least half, effective next month. This is not surprising, since flight attendants can’t do their jobs when there are no flights. Air Canada is now flying at one-twentieth its pre-pandemic capacity. The airline hopes to ramp up operations in coming months, but even optimistic estimates put late-2020 airline travel volume at about one-quarter of baseline levels.

Similar patterns are playing out everywhere. COVID-19 has decimated the travel industry. It will return, of course, but will it be the same as we remember it?

My pre-boomer peers are almost all retirees, many securely well-heeled, and mad for travel. In their salad days, they planned trips hither and yon by themselves or with friends. The food tour through Italy, or the wine tour through France. Bicycles and hiking often were involved, along with local guides who would provide a deep dive into regional culture and history. No wasting away at Del Boca Vista for this set. Even the least ambitious will sign on to group trips, with age-appropriate itineraries and accommodations managed by experts. Cruises are much favoured. In 2019, an estimated 30 million passengers per year traveled the high seas.

My husband and I are neither of us tinctured with the wanderlust that afflicts so many of our friends. And yet, a little embarrassed at having seen so little of the world, we took to cruising many years ago as a compromise between our comfortable beaten path (Quebec cottage country, New England, Florida) and the more serious itinerary-driven travel that our peers gush about on Facebook.

Amongst the pleasures provided by these floating palaces, apart from the bliss of unpacking only once for the duration, is the relaxing assumption that one is safe from the kind of unpleasant surprises real travelers stoically surmount on their roads less travelled—a scorpion at one’s toes in the scenic wilds of Costa Rica slipper, say, or the poisonous barb of some hideous thing lurking under the waves at a remote coastal beach. Plus, of course, the enchantment of awakening each day to a new, exotic port of call.

On a Black Sea cruise, I lighted on Varna, Yalta, and Odessa. A few hours in each, including a close inspection of the very hall in the czar’s summer palace where the Allied leaders met in 1945, and I was back on the boat, satisfied that I’d gotten a general sense of the place and its importance. The curators at Livadia Palace had even decked out the meeting hall in a way that corresponded to famous photos of the Yalta Conference. No, I didn’t learn much more information about any of these places than might be contained in the small-print caption information on a postcard. But getting the overall historical gist of the place is fine for me, as it is for most of the cruising demographic. I am sure Istanbul would occupy any serious traveler for at least a week. But for voyaging wastrels like us, a few palaces, the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar, with vendors clutching at one’s arm and attempting to drag one into their leather-goods shops, were quite enough.

But now the words “cruise ship” conjure up the Diamond Princess, on which about a fifth of the ship’s 3,711 passengers and crew became infected with COVID-19 in January. At least nine died. Several other cruise ships became COVID-19 hot-spots as well, demonstrating the ease with which the virus could spread in a confined space—especially a confined space whose very purpose is to facilitate collective meals, recreation, gambling, drinking, and assorted merrymaking. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average age of the Diamond Princess passengers was 69, certainly old enough to be in a high-risk category for COVID-19. Even in February, before lockdown measures in most countries began in earnest, my traveling friends were rightly terrified by news that this massive ship had become one giant floating quarantine station.

One must never underestimate the public’s penchant for amnesia. The 1977 Norwalk gastroenteritis outbreak, which affected more than 500 passengers on multiple cruises, put a temporary damper on cruising for a while. But it picked up again, despite the fact that the virus still recurs from time to time. (As recently as 2019, a Royal Caribbean cruise was cut short when hundreds were sickened.) Noroviruses aren’t typically fatal, though I guarantee that anyone who gets Norwalk won’t forget the experience soon.

But this amnesia has its limits. And so I offer my prediction that—absent a foolproof vaccine, of the type we have for measles—COVID-19 will deal the big ships a knockout blow. Even once the lockdown policies end, oldies will continue voluntarily to observe far stricter semi-isolation rules than everyone else. It’s simply a matter of cost-benefit analysis. Yes, the pleasurable benefits we enjoy on the lido deck are somewhat greater than those that would be experienced by the average millennial hipster (though he might still derive some fleeting pleasure in a purely ironic capacity). But the statistically calculated costs would be much higher, since there is a good chance that COVID-19 would be fatal for me, but likely present as little more than a mild flu for someone half my age.

As with many of the changes that COVID-19 will bring about—including the retail migration to Amazon and the trend of people working from home—this may be a case of simply accelerating something that would have come about anyway. Every new generation is more sensitive to environmental issues than the one before. And cruise ships gobble obscene amounts of fuel, and can directly or indirectly befoul some of the most beautiful places on Earth. They also happen to be floating dens of all-you-can-eat gluttony that sometimes resemble a fattening farm run by Kang and Kodos. Even before COVID-19, cruising already was seen as a politically incorrect, white-privilege, “Ok, boomer” form of indulgence. We live in an age when even many grandparents follow social media and know the derisive cruise memes from Seinfeld et cetera. They were willing to suffer the stigma associated with cruising for the sake of the attendant pleasures. But add on the threat of respiratory failure and you can bet they’ll opt instead for a socially isolated bike tour with Butterfield & Robinson.

The demise of big-ship cruising should not be regretted, even if my own memories are fond. And the ships themselves could be repurposed in permanent dockage as time-share condos. Fort Lauderdale in our winter one year, Sydney in Australia’s summer the next. True, you’ll never be able to step off in Yalta to gaze upon the room where Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt planned the architecture of the post-war world. But at the end of the day, a room is just a room, just as a beach is just a beach. As Wikipedia attests, Allied leaders had the foresight to snap their own selfies back in 1945. In the post-COVID-19 world, I’m really not sure how many of us will be risking infection to snap our own.


Barbara Kay is a columnist for the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at @BarbaraRKay. Her previous Quillette articles include Remembering Roger Scruton, Defender of Reason in a World of Postmodern Jackals.

Featured Photo by Petr Ruzicka on Unsplash


  1. The first evidence seems to belie the prediction. One of the cruise lines announced an August resumption, and it was over booked immediately.

    One half of the people (just a guess) is not in the grip of irrational fear. They are adapting to the phenomenal reality as more information becomes available. The other half is clinging to its nuomenal reality, where abstract nouns and strings of emotive words disguise their interests, and construct outsize fictions.

    Let’s see what happens.

  2. Dear God. That read like a parody of elitism. First, it’s not Covid-19 that is killing industry, it’s the lockdown. Second, as gauche and white privilege-y as the author may regard cruise ships (not that she didn’t spare herself the luxury of a trip or two), they represent jobs, for crew, for caterers, youths who want to pay off student loans etc.
    Third, why are so many Quillette writers so darn enthusiastic about the lockdown? It’s like, whoopee, now we can all work from home. Besides the fact that many people aren’t going to have jobs period, or jobs with lower pay, working from home could very quickly denigrate into there being no separation between home life and office life. And, honestly, is that utopia: living in a room having crap delivered to you by drone?

  3. Yet another “life will never ever ever be the same” article? Yawn.

    On a side note:

    My pre-boomer peers are almost all retirees,

    Why not just say “my peers are almost all retirees”? Why this desperate need to attach a group of people to a named generation? When I hear the name millennial, I think who are these people? Am I supposed to know this? Do I need a calculator? Why not just say young adults, or kids in their 20s or whatever they are.

  4. I think you are spot on. My governor in New York said a couple of weeks ago “if the lockdown saves just one life, all the pain will be worth it”. Words cannot express how insane that statement is.

  5. Governor Death, as a 66 year old curmudgeon has nicknamed him. He just lost his father in a nursing home in Canada. In Canada, 80+% of the mortality has been in senior care homes.

    It is abundantly clear to me, we have let down the elders terribly! They should have been spaced out, given plenty of air and sunshine, and protected from exposure.

    I want to see Gov. Death----or, whoever is responsible for the decision----brought before a jury for negligent manslaughter.

    If there is to be any hope of this being a self correcting sort of republic, we have to resume the practice of punishing people with designations of public trust. Heads have to roll! Heads never roll any more----this tells you something about where we are in the cycle, if you have the right theory for what is going on.

    Here is a quick example: 50 years ago Nixon resigned for a relatively small impropriety in office. By contrast, Obama has come out of the woodwork to launch a counter attack, as prosecutors have exposed outrageous and treasonous felonies he presided over. I know he has no respect for America or American traditions, because he believes the Saul Alinsky idea of America. He is an instinctive, natural politician; cannot resist the lure of politics. He is going to throw himself into the fray, shamelessly----defeating Trump is his only hope now.

  6. This is one of the larger failures in my opinion. Plenty of things in retrospect will have been done wrong, however that is often inevitable when you have to make decisions on incomplete information. We’ve learned a lot about the disease in the past few months.

    However by the time it hit American shores in force (and NY in particular) one thing that was already very very well know was how it was particularly dangerous for the elderly.

    That is what is so particularly damning about some of the decisions that were made. At the time they were made we already knew better. Heads should roll indeed.

  7. There are three camps: Those working from home, those not working and getting as much or more money than before, and those losing everything.

    The first two smugly mock the third and ignore its concerns.

    According to my wife, yes. Some people are true introverts.

  8. Great point. Also, don’t forget the jobs on the ports where they land. I live and work in the US Virgin Islands. A very large part of the population here depends on cruise ship passengers disembarking and spending money. Those people have been out of work for months now with no hope on the horizon.

    Whatever people think about the cruise ship industry, it is still an industry. The money made from it puts food on family tables. It might not be noble work, but it is work nonetheless. Work provides purpose, and people need purpose.

  9. Concerns such as “If this virus is so virulent and transmissible that extended lockdowns are the least bit necessary for those that can work remotely and those that are being paid to be idle, with the tax revenue that my exposure to risk is providing, what about my “right” to safety?”

    And then there’s the inevitable fact that, within the second group of the fearfully smug, resides a significant percentage whose “right to safety” will find no basis for livelihood to which they can reemerge.

    Finally, there is the percentage of those working from home that will find that the occupational destruction to which they have contributed will reduce the real wealth that provides them with their income.




  10. I makes me sick. And it makes us weak. There is no place for death in our society either. Ship the old folks off to crowded homes so you can visit once a week and the home will take care of all the death stuff when that happens. Death has been a defining part of human existence since there have been humans to experience it. We have removed death from the equation, now all we have is loss. The loss of a loved one, the empty space where they used to be. To watch a loved one die, I feel, brings closure and meaning to the loss and emptiness that follows. It also allows them to die with some dignity, surrounded by loved ones in a place that isn’t foreign to them.

  11. One of the things that I find quite fascinating is that is much more fun to be a conservative. Trump rallies are like rock concerts and the conservatives that I call friends are all optimists. They all enjoy life. They care for their families and friends. They care for their country and their community institutions, including churches, mosques and synagogues.

    In contrast being on the left seems pretty miserable. The world is going to end in 12 years. Love, family, and children are just extensions of the white male patriarchy. White people have to acknowledge that they are truly evil. And we will NEVER, NEVER be the same after Covid -19. We need to admit life has changed for the worse forever.

    Are you having fun on that cruise? How dare you exercise your white privilege. I demand that you be miserable right now!!!

    So why is that? Why do conservatives have more fun? Why does the left want so badly to be miserable? This was definitely not true when I was in college. Obviously, I have some ideas on the subject. But I would like to hear from others on this

  12. It’s a self-selecting political philosophy.

    When one is inclined by nature to be miserable and unhappy, one wants to blame it on somebody other than oneself.

    The left identifies an external cause for those already wishing there to be one.

  13. This story is hysterical and counter to the wisdom we should have derived from previous crises. In reality, most things will in fact be the same after enough time. As long as we don’t have a repeat of this every 5 years (I’m looking at you, Chinese government!), people will correctly regard this as a long-tail event and resume regular activity after some time, including taking cruises.

  14. @Ted

    Thank you all for your comments. Ted makes a lot of good comments. He is absolutely correct that I need to be more careful to separate out those on the moderate left, like Kurt Dershem from the ones making all the noise, like the author of this article. I agree that belief in something larger than yourself, be it your family, your country, and/or your community leads to a much more satisfying life than simply making a few extra nickels. And Morgan Foster’s comment: “When one is inclined by nature to be miserable and unhappy, one wants to blame it on somebody other than oneself.” Is right on

    I think that Benitacanova and Mythfortune have a great point. When I was in college (back in the Middle Ages to answer Ted’s question) We were giving the finger to the man and it was fun. I am still giving the finger to the man and I still enjoy it. However, “the man” has changed. The left is now the establishment. So I would take their analyses one step farther into “white guilt” The cultural elite is the most successful group in the country and in general, they lead normal lives. The made their money through capitalistic pursuits which they condemn. They call any talk of unwed motherhood in the black community as RACIST, but those who have children are married in far greater numbers than the general population. I could go on…

    I suspect that many are very uncomfortable to be the establishment. The establishment has always been the bad guys, so how can they be the bad guys? That is why you see so much virtue signaling. Houston inner city schools, like many inner schools are in bad shape. In some cases, teachers are spending their own money to buy classroom supplies. So what does the school board do? They allocate $1.2MM to change the names of schools named after confederate soldiers. Did that help a single student? Is that what is foremost on the minds of poor single moms worried about their children’s education? The answer to both questions is obviously no. But it makes those in the cultural elite feel good about themselves without doing anything hard. A college has a spare $300K per year to spend. They could set up a “soup kitchen” where poor could come to eat for free. Students could staff the kitchen and learn about working with the poor. Or they could hire another diversity dean. Guess what! They go for the diversity dean ever time. Why? It makes them feel good about themselves while they preserve their own privilege. Like the lords and ladies of the Middle Ages they are buying dispensations.

    Barbara Kay thinks cruising is “white-privilege”. She doesn’t see the blacks that are on many cruises. This may shock those on the left, but most blacks are middle-class and they like the same things that we white middle class people do. She doesn’t see the thousands of low skills jobs created by the cruise industry in American ports, many of which are filled with African Americans. She doesn’t see the huge positive financial impact that cruising can have on a poor community. But none of those things matter. What matters is that she can slay the evil cruise dragon. She can feel good about herself.

  15. There is a lot of misinformation about nuclear reactors and as a result, a lot of fear. If you want to learn about nuclear power, you need to go to France. France gets 75.6% of their electricity from nuclear power and they are the largest electricity exporter in the world. Only 6% of their electricity comes from fossil fuels. I expect that number to go to zero in the next several years. France has solved the storage problem. They recycle 96% of fissionable material. The remainder is stored in a large state of the art facilities. Facilities are currently being built to store even more waste deep underground. The underground storage, which will come online in 2025 will have a greater than 100,000-year life-cycle.

    The Chernobyl reactor was a late 1940’s design. Most importantly there was no containment structure !! No reactor today resembles the Chernobyl design. If you look at modern reactors you see a big dome built of very thick concrete. That is the containment vessel. Modern reactors are built to control failure. That is why there was very little release of radioactive material during the Three-Mile Island incident. The containment vessel worked as designed.

    The Fukushima Daiichi disaster was a function of Japanese pork-barrel politics and sheer stupidity. The Fukushima plant was located on the west coast of Japan, which is known for very high levels of seismicity. It was built 10m above sea-level. During the 20th century there were eight tsunamis in the area that exceeded 10m. In 1896 a tsunami in the area reached a height of 38m above sea-level. Several scientific studies conducted after the plant was built warned of tsunami danger in the area. So, let’s not be stupid. Let’s agree that we build reactors in Kansas instead of along the San Andreas fault in California. But even at Fukushima the release of radioactive material was relatively small.

    The Three Mile Island incident was a combination of mechanical and human failure. This would never happen in a modern French reactor which has far greater redundancy and modern computer control. Reactor SCADA systems are isolated and not connected to the Internet. The idea that a reactor could be hacked is SF fantasy. And short of a nuclear weapon, the containment vessels are bombproof. n 1988, Sandia National Laboratories conducted a test of slamming a jet fighter into a large concrete block, similar in thickness to the containment vessels at 775 km/h (482 mph). The airplane left only a 64-millimetre-deep (2.5 in) gouge in the concrete.

    Scaling wind and solar is simply not possible in the way that many would like to imagine.It is not going to happen. In order to power Greater Houston a centralized solar plant would have to be 403 sq. mile in size. That is about the size of Houston. Wind requires even more real estate. So, if we are serious about reducing CO2 emissions, nuclear energy, along carbon capture and a switch from coal to natural gas for electricity generation are the only ways we get there.

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