Cruise lines are accustomed to the complications of moving 30 million passengers every year.
But when the industry had to take a pause this spring due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it found itself facing what turned out to be a herculean task of repatriating tens of thousands of crewmembers from around the world.
Getting that many people home so suddenly would be difficult in any circumstances. But in this case, border closures, flight suspensions and, in the U.S. at least, a federal prohibition against transporting crew using commercial flights were added to the mix. What resulted is an endeavor that the chiefs of the three largest cruise companies have called monumental, extraordinary and extremely complicated.
"Our crew come from more than 100 countries around the world with widely different safety protocols and travel restrictions," said Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. CEO Richard Fain. "This has turned what should be a simple task into a monumental one.
"It's really hard to convey the complexity of the process to somebody who's used to making simple travel arrangements," Fain added during an earnings call earlier this month. "But our teams are working around the clock with the multitude of governing bodies to repatriate our crews as soon as possible."
One of the solutions is to use the cruise ships themselves, empty of passengers, as crew transport vessels. In RCCL's case, it had nine ships carrying more than 10,000 crewmembers back to their home countries, Fain said. "It's a complex and expensive way to do it. But it's a most reliable way to get these men and women home to their families as quickly as possible."
Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald said in an interview that the ongoing repatriation of the company's tens of thousands of crewmembers from 145 different countries was "extremely complicated."
Citing the suspension of most air travel as well as border closures, Donald added the variation of regulations including some countries mandating two-week quarantines before allowing anyone to enter.
"It's been very complicated because we have crew from over 145 different countries. And they all have their own rules and regulations," he said. "It's been intense."
As of last week, Donald said there were 20-plus cruise ships in Manila Bay trying to get Filipino crewmembers home. Carnival Corp. brands also have ships taking crew to the Caribbean and India, in addition to "countless charter flights to try to make sure people got home safely."
"We still have a lot of crew to repatriate, but the numbers have come down quite a bit," Donald said. "Now we are beginning to move into a phase where we can plan for the future."