Alaska cruise season, which injects an estimated $900 million into the Seattle economy, doesn’t start until next month. But fallout from the global spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 is rippling through the cruising sector here, even as California health officials reported Wednesday a patient had died from coronavirus, likely after being exposed during a cruise.
Some cruise lines, swamped by cancellations on their Asia itineraries at what is typically peak sales season, have redeployed vessels from Asia to ply waters off Alaska, British Columbia and the West Coast — including some new sailings from Seattle. Celebrity and Windstar have both added Alaska itineraries from here, according to online industry magazine CruiseCritic.com.
And some travelers are rebooking their Asia voyages onto Alaska-bound vessels, said Andrea King, CEO of Lynnwood’s Go Anywhere But Here Travel.
Every time a vessel calls in Seattle it generates $4 million for the local economy, according to Port estimates — so, all else being equal, “more ships are good news,” Port of Seattle spokesman Peter McGraw said.
Increased availability for Alaskan sailings, though, may be met with softening demand.
In the past week, Seattle has become the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. Ten people in Washington have died from the disease, as of Wednesday morning.
On social media, some Alaska-bound cruisers said they had canceled or postponed their trips after reading media reports of the coronavirus outbreak near Seattle and watching from afar as the virus ran through passengers on the Diamond Princess last month.
“I’m not getting stuck in a large petri dish,” wrote one passenger who said she canceled her trip.
The Port of Seattle originally forecast a record 1.3 million cruise passengers in 2020. Now the outlook is less clear.
Norwegian Cruise Line, Silversea, Windstar and Carnival — the parent company of Holland America Line and Princess Cruises — did not respond to questions about how many passengers had recently canceled their Alaska voyages. Together, those lines account for about 80% of cruises departing Seattle.
Two incidents in early February put the cruise industry at the front lines of the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19, and drew worldwide headlines depicting the ships as floating disease colonies.
Six people who traveled aboard the Diamond Princess as it voyaged from Hong Kong to Japan died after contracting the disease, which spread to more than 700 passengers on the ship. The Diamond Princess was held in quarantine off the coast of Japan for nearly two weeks before the U.S. airlifted passengers to military bases in California and Texas in mid-February.
Meanwhile MS Westerdam, operated by Seattle-based Holland America, was turned away from every port on its itinerary after picking up nearly 800 passengers in Hong Kong. Eventually it was allowed to dock in Cambodia on Feb. 13, and the ship’s 2,257 passengers were all initially cleared of the virus.
But three days later, one passenger, by that point in Malaysia, tested positive for the illness, raising fears that many more aboard the ship had been infected and allowed to return home.
Wednesday, officials in Placer County near Sacramento reported that an elderly patient with underlying health conditions had died after testing positive for coronavirus. The patient had recently cruised on the Grand Princess’s San Francisco-to-Mexico itinerary, potentially exposing other passengers on the vessel.
Passengers who plan on going to Alaska say they’re taking reasonable precautions against illness.
Christy Tranor, who sails to Alaska in early June out of Seattle, said her suitcase will contain Clorox wipes, soap and “lots of hand sanitizer.”
Tranor, who lives in Georgia, is traveling with a daughter who has reactive asthma and her 75-year-old grandmother. The novel coronavirus typically presents as a mild flu in healthy adults, but older adults and people with weaker immune systems are at higher risk of more severe illness.
“I talked it over with my grandmother and the risk is worth doing something she never dreamed she would be able to do,” Tranor said in a text message. If the virus continues to spread, she said, “we will reassess.”
Industry group Cruise Lines International Association issued a warning on its website that as of Monday, cruise lines would not allow passengers who had recently traveled through or from China, Macao, Hong Kong, South Korea, Iran “or a location currently subject to lockdown by government health authorities” to board their vessels. Those strictures apply to every vessel departing Seattle.
The group did not respond to a request to clarify whether American passengers living in localities with known coronavirus outbreaks, such as King and Snohomish counties, would be allowed to travel.