Illness Spreads on Another Cruise. What Makes Ships Sick?

Royal Caribbean International’s Explorer of the Seas is docked in St. Thomas on Jan. 26 Photograph by Thomas Layer/AP Photo

One of the biggest enemies to the cruise industry is norovirus, the stomach-churning gastrointestinal illness that leaves you cowering in your cabin with no interest in the endless bounty of meals and buffets aboard the ship. In the grand scheme of the more than 10 million passengers who cruise each year, norovirus isn’t a major problem—seven outbreaks occurred last year, according to the industry, sickening 1,238 people—but highly contagious illnesses are like crippling engine fires in that they tend to garner headlines and make travelers leery.

In the latest case, almost 600 people on a 10-day Royal Caribbean International cruise voyage—about a fifth of the passengers—fell sick with suspected norovirus while sailing in the Caribbean. The Explorer of the Seas left the Cape Liberty Cruise Port in Bayonne, N.J., on Jan. 21 with 3,050 people and will return on Wednesday, two days early, Royal Caribbean said on Sunday night. Of the 1,165 crew members, 49 were also sick. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent health officials on Sunday to board the ship in St. Thomas.

“We think the right thing to do is to bring our guests home early and use the extra time to sanitize the ship even more thoroughly,” the company said. “We are sorry for disappointing our guests, and we are taking several steps to compensate them for their inconvenience.” The ship will then have an extra day without passengers for a more thorough “barrier” sanitization scrubbing to try to eradicate the virus.

Explorer of the Seas, launched in 2000, has passed all of its federal inspections so far as part of the U.S. Vessel Sanitation Program. The ship’s most recent inspection was in July 2013, and it received a score of 98 by the CDC (86 or higher is considered acceptable). The virus causes stomach and intestinal inflammation, leading to stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, according to the CDC.

Norovirus is commonly associated with cruise ships because the proximity of passengers to one another helps fuel outbreaks and because federal health officials closely track incidents of disease within U.S. cruise fleets. The impact of health problems, both in terms of negative publicity and financial costs, is one reason almost every cruise line dispenses hand sanitizer so liberally throughout its ships. Staff squirt the liquid as passengers file into dining rooms and climb aboard following ports of calls, and stationary hand sanitizer dispensers are placed around the ship. Cruise lines also require passengers to report any flu-like illnesses as they are checking in for boarding, and buffets on many ships are now equipped with staff to minimize the contact between the passengers and the food.

Has the visibility of the norovirus taken a toll on business? On the same day the Explorer of the Seas was sent back to port, Royal Caribbean boosted its 2014 profit outlook after what Chief Executive Officer Richard Fain called “the media storm of 2013.” The cruise industry was rocked last year by high-profile calamities, led by Carnival and its so-called cruise from hell when the Carnival Triumph suffered a fire and was stranded at sea. That prompted virtually nonstop cable-TV news coverage and dented bookings sharply across the industry.

“It’s been an interesting time in the cruise industry, and I don’t have to tell you how pleased we are to see us emerging from it,” Fain said today on a conference call. Adam Goldstein, CEO of the Royal Caribbean brand, told analysts he doesn’t expect the Explorer of the Seas outbreak to affect the company’s overall financial results.

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