After 80 days at sea, three transfers between ships, four canceled flights and one plane malfunction, Royal Caribbean Cruises music director Bruno Cruells finally touched down in his native Argentina on June 3, accompanied by 251 compatriots. Sitting behind the taxi’s new plexiglass on the way home from the airport with his hometown whizzing by out the window, he felt relief.
“I felt like I was finally safe somehow,” said Cruells, 30, “like continuing from where I left before all of this happened.”
As more countries loosen COVID-19 travel restrictions, crew members are slowly making their way home. About 3,000 Carnival Cruise Line workers got off in Croatia earlier this month to catch rides and flights home across Europe. Smiling behind their masks, they posed for a selfie on the pier.
Meanwhile, MSC has flown more than 1,000 Indian crew members home on charter flights from Europe and South America. Royal Caribbean also flew more than 1,200 Filipino crew members home last week from Greece, Dubai, the United States and Barbados.
Still, at least 42,000 workers remain trapped on cruise ships without paychecks — some still suffering from COVID-19 — three months after the industry shut down.
The drawn-out crew repatriation process has underscored the complex relationship between the cruise industry and the Caribbean countries its ships most frequently visit, and reignited the debate about whether countries are getting a fair shake from the industry.
In February and March, cruise ships spread COVID-19 to islands around the Caribbean, accounting for half of the infections in Trinidad and Tobago. After the industry shut down on March 13, Caribbean countries turned ships suffering outbreaks away when they desperately needed a place to evacuate sick passengers and crew.
Now, as countries struggle with returning cruise ship workers still testing positive for COVID-19, they are also wrestling with how to get the industry back up and running. Jamaica, Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Belize in Central America have all reported positive COVID-19 infections among repatriated workers, in some cases after weeks without registering any new infections. Cruise companies say cruises will resume in August after the U.S. ban expires on July 24.
Alfred Sears, an attorney and former member of the Bahamian Parliament, said the COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity for Caribbean countries to restructure their relationships with cruise companies to demand more investment in exchange for tax exemptions.
“This pandemic will force us to ask some fundamental questions about how we do business,” he said. “There ought to be a more balanced relationship.”
Only Barbados has allowed for crew repatriation flights from its airports on which thousands have been returned home to countries all over the world, including Cruells. At the start of the pandemic, the Bahamas, which serves as the flag state for many cruise ships, rejected requests to take passengers in and later, cruise ship workers. The country’s maritime authority cited its limited resources and ongoing hurricane recovery as reasons why it could not do more.
According to the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA), the Bahamas government collected $54.2 million from cruise lines in 2018, mostly in $18 per-passenger fees. That year, the Bahamas paid cruise companies around $12 million to bring passengers to the country, an incentive Minister of Tourism and Aviation Dionisio D’Aguilar ended in October 2018. Carnival Corporation Chairman Micky Arison is the current chairman of the FCCA.
Determining the true financial relationship between the cruise lines and the Bahamas — or any of the Caribbean islands — is difficult. Each nation negotiates its own agreements; some details are difficult for the public to access.