The romance and luxury associated with cruise ships hides a darker history that is surfacing now with the Ruby Princess debacle, writes Dr Lee Duffield.
The departure of five cruise ships from Sydney on Sunday night (5 April), told to go by state authorities, with two more sent off from Perth, partly relieved a problem feeding into the national crisis. The main one in the story, Ruby Princess, carrying COVID-19 among its crew, stayed on at Port Kembla.
On 19 March, it put 2,700 passengers ashore in Sydney, waved through without checks. Some 620 have developed the disease and 11 have died, out of 53 deaths in Australia as a whole.
RESPONSIBILITY - FOR NSW AND FOR PETER DUTTON
The New South Wales Health Department has been copping blame, but critics, including the Federal Labor Opposition, have been asking about Australian Border Force. This paramilitary body was composed out of the former civilian, customs and immigration departments and, like it or not, has taken on their responsibility. If a ship is coming in from international waters, certainly with one or more foreigners on board, surely Border Force has to handle it or the country is unprotected.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was himself diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier on but has to answer if there was no replacement minister when the ship came in. The Opposition spokesperson in the field, Kristina Keneally, says the Minister has gone too quiet, so is asking: "where is Peter Dutton?"
DODGY FAMILY BACKGROUND OF RUBY PRINCESS
The bulky, moving shape behind all this, Ruby Princess, is a beguiling figure: a scene of great pleasure to thousands of laid-back or party-minded travellers, deceptively dangerous as a harbourer of the disease - and from a questionable family background.
It is a leviathan of 113,561 gross tons (GT), American owned and registered in Bermuda. Its Princess Line and the Carnival Line with which it is affiliated have 45 very large ships, 28 of them over 100,000 GT. Several more are on order at shipyards.
Their leading rival, Royal Caribbean, operates 26, including four ships over 225,000 GT. All but a few of the mega-ships over 100,000 GT were built after 2000; they are a 21st-century phenomenon. Royal Caribbean's Ovation of the Seas, which carried over 80 COVID-19 sufferers into Sydney Harbour on 18 March, is swank and near-new, built in 2016.
These vessels are representatives of a vastly expanded world cruise business, until this month worth an estimated U.S.$45.6 billion, one that was already getting something of a bad name before COVID-19. They would have hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers afloat around the world's oceans and coasts at any moment.
NO PIRACY ON THE HIGH SEAS - THIS IS MARKETING
The business is a product of American marketing ingenuity tracking the desires of prospective customers. These vary from revellers looking for a bacchanalian blast in floating dance palaces, to family fun groups, to retirees wanting to visit exotic places with a clean room every night and no hassles getting about - a late-in-life visit to Alaska, Iceland, Papua New Guinea or Antarctica made easy.
The companies took advantage of new shipping technologies, following on from the 1970s supertankers and later container transports, to create economies of scale. They took advantage also of loose financial laws that allowed them to skip tax by registering the prime assets in foreign ports - usually Panama, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Malta or Liberia. Hong Kong, too, is offering the tax breaks. They could, therefore, keep down prices, as with the Carnival slogan: 'More than you'd expect for less than you'd expect'. The heavy advertising made them a household name.
Carnival, founded in 1972, made a breakthrough pitching to a younger market for which the large ships were ideal. Most of the cruise companies feature slick management, offering free air trips to port cities, cabin upgrades and loyalty schemes. Bent on expansion, they have been financing harbour works, as in Brisbane, to open more ports, making them big and deep enough to hold the new ships.
Carrying passengers, not massively heavy cargoes, the ships can be constructed with high top hampers, the stacks of balcony decks like a high-rise building. Appointed for great times, catering generously, providing pools and rides, nightclubs and casinos, they took up an already known taste of consumers for romance and extravagant times at sea. They fulfil a desire for fancier accommodation on holiday than at home. Like their luxuriously appointed historical model, Titanic, they are an inspirational phenomenon, with lurking hazards.
TROUBLE AT SEA AND ASHORE
There has been trouble, as would be expected, with such gigantic and heavily populated floating assets. Apart from outright sinkings, like the Costa Concordia which ran aground in 2012 killing 33, these are some incidents and instances from lists compiled by international cruise watchers:
cases of gross underpayment of staff, a scourge of international shipping; engine room fires, or mechanical and generator breakdowns, leaving ships adrift, in six serious incidents on Carnival ships alone - problems aggravated by the numbers of passengers at risk; incidents onboard from fatal accidents, brawling and assaults, again in a well-regulated situation but with big numbers of people on hand; sanitary problems in a floating hotel, especially with the threat of gastroenteric disease. Passengers with one company said they were disconcerted, having to wash hands each time during a meal before return visits to the buffet. A norovirus outbreak on one ship hit 689 passengers; and illegal dumping of oil and also plastics into the seas, with corporate lying and cover-ups over the charges. Over 800 incidents have been listed through into 2019. The Carnival Corporation has been at war in U.S. courts, breaching terms of probation they have imposed, paying U.S.$80 million in amends. The company is again on probation until 2022. Princess Cruises have paid U.S.$40 million for similar offences.
Resistance to the courts raises a key worry about corporate cultures and probity where the actual business model is hinged on a big-scale tax dodge. In the Sydney case, Peter Dutton accused the shipping lines of lying about the coronavirus onboard.
The companies stalled over moves by Australian port authorities to send the ships away. Facilities in Australian cities - harbour space, refuelling and provisioning, discharging sick personnel - are better in a crisis than most ports on their itineraries. Likewise, the United States, where dozens of ships have been trying to dock in Florida. The practice of buying reserved berths where the companies invest in harbours means that they will become even harder to shift.
GO BACK TO YOUR (TAX HAVEN) HOME PORTS
Trying to send them back to home ports can be an awkward idea, where they do not actually have home ports, only tax havens on paper. Yet it is not too much to ask that they do go to the expense of sailing to these places, to wait out the world crisis. At first glance, some of their ports, like Monrovia, Liberia, look pitifully small to accommodate too many heavy-displacement hulks.
Elsewhere, money has gone into most flag-of-convenience locations, boosting their credibility. Bermuda has a natural anchorage with special infrastructure, three cruise ports, good for normal traffic, may be exposed to pressure if they all turn up. The Bahamas now boasts one of the world's largest and deepest man-made harbours. Extensions to the Panama Canal have been done specifically with the cruise liners in mind.
Malta, today a major transhipment centre in the European Union, might have space for some extra love boats in its large container port. The world's 50 biggest container ships, all built in the last three years, all measure at over 200,000 GT, so in difficult times there should be a place for stray superliners in their purpose-built harbours.
Empty cruise ships may not do so well with shore services during emergencies at some of those ports - but that is not Australia's concern. If they are not in port on regular business, it does not look cruel to send them home.
Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.