Shortage of crew is yet another hurdle for cruise restart

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A crew member serves food on the MSC Grandiosa. MSC was the first large ship line to launch sailings during the pandemic.
A crew member serves food on the MSC Grandiosa. MSC was the first large ship line to launch sailings during the pandemic.

As cruise ships prepare to launch service again this summer, they are faced with a potential shortage of crew for their fleets, members of the industry said this week.

Speaking during a Seatrade virtual event, Bernhard Stacher, vice president of global hotel operations for MSC Cruises, said that most crew members are eager to come back to work, but the discrepancies in vaccine priority, in addition to a slowdown in visa issuance in the EU, combine to stymie the company's ability to bring crew to their ships. 

And those are not even the biggest issues. 

"It's vaccines, it's visas, but first and foremost, if you're talking one to three ships we have enough crew members for sure; for 10 ships, I'm sure we're still good," he said. "But ... there are a lot of crew members that probably looked elsewhere [for work]. Because it's been a year, and if they were successful and found something else to do, they are not available anymore."

Stacher said that MSC, like other lines, has reached out to all of its former crew and tried to engage them.

"But there is a real possibility that we have to hire new talent into our organization because we lost a lot of our old talent," he said. "That's real." 

Dietmar Wertanzl, CEO of CMI Leisure Management, which provides hotel and hospitality services to expedition cruise ships, said CMI will have to staff three new vessels for the Antarctica season in addition to the ones it already manages, meaning it will have to hire 30% more crew members.

"That will be a challenge," he said. "Finding hotel crew will be the biggest challenge for all of us."

Wertanzl said that "people need to make a living" and that although many might have gone to hotels where they are open, he remains positive they will come back.

"I think 90% of people will come back," he said of his own crew. "Yes, there is a risk that they might pursue hotel and restaurant jobs on an interim basis, but we strongly feel that they will return once we are back in business."

A crew member uses electrostatic spraying to deep clean the MSC Grandiosa.
A crew member uses electrostatic spraying to deep clean the MSC Grandiosa.

Vaccine availability concerns

For crew who do want to be back at sea, vaccine inequality could slow their return.

The U.S. is among the nations with the highest percentage of its population that has received at least one dose -- about 36% as of April 13 -- but most nations are far below that, including many where cruise ship crew live.

In the Philippines, that number is 1%. 

Jacques Van Staden, vice president of food and beverage for MSC, said on the Seatrade panel that when it comes to vaccines, "at the end of the day, it's simple mathematics: It's America first, then the rest of the world. The only thing we can ask for is that countries like the Philippines, or Indonesia and India, put seafarers on top of the priority list."

Wertanzl said most countries have not prioritized seafarers for inoculation and that the Philippines only recently gave them higher status to get the shots, but that its main vaccination program does not launch until June.

"It is still a challenge for us to get them all vaccinated if we operate within the next 90 days," he said, adding that for CMI, "we should be fine" for the winter and fall seasons.

Beyond getting shots in crew arms, Stacher pointed out that not all countries accept every vaccine. China, for example, prioritizes arrival visas for those with vaccines made in China. Others must undergo additional scrutiny.

"If I have an injection in Asia and it isn't recognized on the other side of the world, that's a problem," Stacher said. "It's a minefield of different countries and different regulations -- it's not easy for anybody who runs a global business, that's for sure." 

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