US considers discouraging some travellers from cruises

State Department says any travel by ship could be subject to restrictions and quarantine. (AFP pic)

WASHINGTON: The United States is considering ways to discourage US travellers from taking cruises as part of a broader Trump administration effort to limit the spread of coronavirus, according to four officials familiar with the situation.

The officials, who asked to remain anonymous, said no decision had been made.

The discussions were taking place ahead of a meeting this weekend between Vice President Mike Pence, who is in charge of leading the US response to the coronavirus, and the cruise industry.

The administration could advise some or all US travellers to temporarily avoid taking cruises in the face of a growing number of coronavirus cases on cruise ships or potentially impose travel restrictions related to cruises, officials said.

During a press conference at the White House on Friday evening, Pence said elderly people should use “common sense and caution” when planning a trip on a cruise ship.

“Cruise ships represent a unique challenge for health officials,” Pence said. “We’re going to be working closely with some great American companies in the cruise line industry to enhance and strengthen the screening procedures.”

Shares of cruise operators in US trading turned negative after the Reuters report earlier on Friday. Carnival Corp and Royal Caribbean shares dropped nearly 2% and Norwegian Cruise Lines stock was down nearly 1%.

Shares in Royal Caribbean Cruises, Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings have fallen around 50% since January.

US President Donald Trump signed a bill on Friday allocating US$8.3 billion to bolster the country’s capacity to test for the new coronavirus and fund other measures to stem an outbreak that has now infected some 100,000 people worldwide.

Democrats have said Trump – a Republican who faces re-election on Nov 3 – has not adequately prepared the country for the possibility of a pandemic.

Trump said during a visit to a tornado-stricken area in Tennessee on Friday that his administration was exploring options to help airlines and other industries hurt by the coronavirus outbreak, according to a pool report.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow also told CNBC that the administration was considering “targeted and timely” tax relief for such industries.

Debating measures

Twenty-one people aboard a cruise ship denied entry to San Francisco have tested positive for coronavirus and the ship will be brought to a non-commercial port this weekend, and all passengers and crew will be tested, Pence said during the press conference on Friday evening.

The administration is urgently debating measures aimed at reducing outbreaks onboard cruise ships with several officials confirming the administration has reviewed potential restrictions on US cruise ship travel.

Officials differed on whether the dramatic step of temporarily barring new cruises was being seriously considered.

Cruise lines in recent days have liberalised cancellation and rebooking policies and some cruise travellers reported ships are travelling with far less than maximum capacity.

The Cruise Lines International Association said this week cruise lines would take steps to limit coronavirus concerns, denying boarding to all persons who had travelled from hot spots including South Korea, Iran, China and parts of Italy.

The group also said cruise lines would conduct illness screening for US citizens who have recently visited those destinations.

The cruise industry contributed nearly US$53 billion to the US economy in 2018 and generated more than 420,000 jobs, according to an analysis by the association.

“Singling out the travel and tourism industry, and cruise lines specifically, will have significant detrimental impacts – some possibly irreversible – on the national and local economies,” the group said in a written statement.

Senior Trump administration officials discussed the cruise ship issue on Thursday and expected to revisit it during a meeting on Friday, according to a White House official.

The official called the ships “huge incubators” and said older passengers could be especially vulnerable.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said its current information suggests that older people and people with severe chronic health conditions such as heart disease, lung disease and diabetes, have a higher risk of developing a serious illness as a result of the virus.

The US State Department said in guidance last month that Americans should reconsider travel on cruise ships in Asia due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The department said the situation remained “dynamic” and that any travel by ship could be subject to restrictions and quarantine by local authorities.