(JAMAICA GLEANER) — With no indication as to when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will give the green light for cruise activity to return to US waters and an expectation that COVID-19 protocols will reduce the number of guests on each voyage, Jamaican cruise line workers whose tour of duty ended prematurely at the start of the outbreak are worried that their jobs could be under threat.
The cruise line industry is the fastest growing category in the leisure travel market, with between 4,000 and 5,000 Jamaicans hired at various levels.
According to the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association 2019 Overview, the industry sustained more than 1.1 million jobs, spending a total of US$45.6 billion in wages and salaries, while generating approximately US$160 billion in economic activity globally.
In 2018, some 28.2 million passengers went on cruises, which is 5.6 per cent more than the 26.7 million travellers the previous year.
That growth was turned on its head this year as the coronavirus pandemic took a toll on the market, leaving several mega-vessels stranded at sea as governments crippled with uncertainty were reluctant to accept even their own citizens.
The CDC has now issued a ‘Framework for Conditional Sailing Order’ for cruise ships that will take effect on Tuesday, December 1. It includes a phased approach for resumption of passenger cruises, even as they warn against leisure travel, especially on-board cruises.
But the established health protocols for vessels to set sail again are a concern for cruise worker Lisa, who argues that if the ships are not operating at full capacity, jobs would be lost.
“The uncertainty is stressing me out because I am sitting here since May and all I am doing is spending with no guarantee that I will be called back after COVID,” she told The Sunday Gleaner. “This is my dream job. I waited for years for the opportunity, but now our future is hanging in the balance because the new health protocols being explored will make it difficult for the cruise lines to utilise its full capacity and [fewer] passengers mean [fewer] workers will be required in certain areas.”
It has been a trying time for her and her colleagues, Lisa said.
“Some of us are on the verge of losing our houses, some of us are about to lose our cars, some of us will have to cancel university education for our children,” she said. “We are here sitting down not being paid and we have no means of earning.”
The Ministry of Tourism has told The Sunday Gleaner that it expects cruises to return to Jamaica’s shores by mid-2021.
Delano Seivwright, senior adviser and strategist at the ministry, did not respond to queries on the local revenue loss due to the no-sail order, pointing instead to global statistics on economic activity generated by cruises. Locally, he said that most of the approximately US$165 million generated went directly to small and medium tourism enterprises such as attractions, contract carriage operators, craft vendors and artisans.
He also failed to say whether the ministry was maintaining contact with cruise ship workers who returned to Jamaica prematurely due to the pandemic, instead pointing to attempts to locate “mostly technical” seafarers.
But Keron Gobern, a veteran sailor based in Trelawny who is on a sabbatical from the cruise sector, says the Government has no connection with cruise line workers.
“If the Government is trying to find Jamaican crew members that work in the technical areas on any cruise line, I can safely say that that is less than one per cent of the nearly 5,000 Jamaicans in the industry, if any at all, and that demonstrates how much we are non-existent to our governments,” said Gobern, who is writing a book on experiences at sea for people from developing countries.
“Cruise workers are struggling and the Jamaica Government has done nothing to help … ,” he lamented. “They don’t even seem to know that we exist, yet we are one of the biggest earners of foreign exchange in the tourism industry. You are talking about 4,000-5,000 Jamaican cruise workers who actually live in Jamaica, each week sending home a minimum of US$500 into the economy through remittances, and yet we are treated as nobodies.”
Colette Roberts-Risden, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, told The Sunday Gleaner that her office would not be in possession of a list of Jamaicans employed in the cruise line industry as their employment arrangements are normally private.
“Just like how you would have teachers leaving Jamaica to work abroad, it is not something that the ministry is directly involved in, and it is actually people going about their private business, so we would not have any data on that,” she said.
The Caribbean has been the preferred cruise destination for 34.4 per cent of guests on the international market, with the Mediterranean second best at 17.3 per cent, but any move for a revival of the sector will depend on a planned test voyage by cruise giants Royal Caribbean to evaluate new measures to mitigate the spread of the virus on-board ships. Some 100,000 voyagers have already subscribed for the trial, a huge boost for consumer confidence, say cruise experts.
Royal Caribbean’s test voyage follows the failed attempt by Norwegian-owned cruise ship operator SeaDream Yacht Club, the first to return to the Caribbean since the shutdown in March.
The voyage was meant to demonstrate that increased safety protocols, including on-board testing, would make a restart possible during the pandemic, but when alarm bells went off, the vessel was forced to return to Barbados, where all 53 passengers and 66 crew were tested and seven guests and two staff members found to have the virus.
“I am still hoping. We are all living on the basis of faith or hope because everything relies on the US. The cruise industry depends on the US market, so the cruise line operators are waiting on the green light from CDC and we are waiting to see how many of us will be called back to work,” Lisa said.