Cruising Controversies of 2009

The peaceful shores of Cabo San Lucas: H1N1-free

2009 Cruising Controversies

By paul motter

Where were we a year ago? Last January, 2009 the "Yes We Can" cruise to the nation's inaugural ceremony was cancelled due to a lack of interest - not in the ceremony, but in the fact that the ship could not get any closer to Washington than Baltimore - pretty much where the gridlock started anyway. From there they offered a bus ride to the Washington Mall (for a fee) with no guarantee they would even arrive.

That set the tone for a number of events for the cruise industry last year, but we weathered the storm far better than many companies, especially travel-related. Last January people were doubting Royal Caribbean would even be able to get financing for the behemoth Oasis of the Seas. Well they did get financing, the ship is a resounding success and Royal Caribbean just reported earnings for Q4 2009 were far better than expected; a 3.4 million profit for the quarter, more than double one year ago.

What other calamities did the cruise industry sail through in 2009? April 26, MSC Cruises actually fired back at Somali pirates attempting to hijack their ship. MSC Melody was just 200 miles north of the Seychelle Islands when six men in a small white boat launched from what appeared to be a pirate mother ship. Once alongside the ship they "opened fire like crazy," according to the captain who described the incident "like being at war."

MSC surprised these hijackers by firing back with real bullets, the last thing anyone expected. At first we were told the captain had "handed the weapons out to a few key security personnel," but we soon learned more accurately that MSC had hired and boarded Israeli commando officers in the Seychelles for protection - just long enough to get them through the danger zone. The temporary security force was off-loaded as soon as ship was ready to enter the Suez Canal.

It wasn't more than a week later that we got even worse news. Just as Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas landed in California to meet up with Carnival Splendor and Sapphire Princess to join the West Coast's first season of true Mega-ship cruising we got news of a brand new viral strain killing people in Mexico. Nearly the same day, our state department issued a warning against "all non-essential travel to Mexico".

For the next two months H1N1 was on every front page and TV network. At first it was called the Mexican Flu, then the Swine Flu and finally more politically neutral H1N1. Throughout 2009 there were reports saying H1N1 was not shaping up to be the pandemic first predicted, but the WHO elevated it to stage 6 pandemic and sensationalistic media won the day. Cruise Line stocks dropped like rocks. I recommended buying them at that level just for the shipboard discounts the cruise lines give to shareholders. Cruise ships were re-routed to Canada for the summer but then quietly started returning to Mexico cruising with no incidents.

H1N1 newspaper articles got sparser until we hardly heard anything, but expect that to change soon. Wolfgang Wodarg, Secretary of Health for the 41-nation Council of Europe is holding hearings to see if the whole event was "one of the greatest medicine scandals of the century". The British government was given the estimate of 65,000 deaths from H1N1 this winter season. So far there have been 360. It appears that most European nations stockpiled the vaccine to ward off an "emergency" that never materialized, and now none of their citizens want the vaccine. France has 60 million doses, and has dispensed five million.

H1N1 provoked the cruise lines to lower their earnings guidance to shareholders last June, after pressure from certain Wall Street analysts. I personally said I believed the disease was being hyped beyond reason. In retrospect, I believe I was right using the same logic as another Council member, Dr. Ulrich Keil who said, "With SARS, with avian flu, always the predictions are wrong... Why don't we learn from history?"

Meanwhile, there is still some fallout from the H1N1 "crisis" in the cruise industry - cruises to Mexico are still a smoking bargain! And here is my advice, grab one now before the prices go up. I just came back from a fantastic cruise on Sapphire Princess and the topic of H1N1 never came up even once.

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