First a confession, I’ve never been on a proper ocean cruise. Although I have spent four nights on a cruise ship, which doubled as my accommodation while visiting the packed and rugby-crazed city of Auckland prior to the World Cup Final in 2011.
So if my opinions from here seem rough on cruise operators, can I say it’s not my intention to castigate the sector at all. I’m not a cruise denier or sceptic. And anyway, slagging the industry would be as effective as trying to push back the tide with a stick. Blind Freddy can see that ocean-bound cruising in Australia has gone gangbusters in the last decade and cruising’s popularity shows no sign of abating.
But my concern is that it might suffer if there’s enough people out there like me who have been alarmed at the recent reports of gastro outbreaks onboard large cruise ships.
My attention on the subject was piqued once again last week. On Thursday February 4 this venerable organ reported that the good ship Diamond Princess sailed into Sydney Harbour on a calm morning. Sadly, all was not well in the tummies of 158 of the roughly 2800 passengers aboard after a wave of gastroenteritis spread. This was a figure the ship’s operator Princess Cruises described as a “small proportion” of passengers – but one I’d readily describe as a bloody lot of people.
It’s not an isolated instance either. Since late 2014, Carnival’s Dawn Princess, Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas and Explorer of the Seas and P&O’s Pacific Eden have all returned to Sydney with a substantial number of passengers who could only be described as crook as Rookwood.
The Pacific Eden voyage over Christmas last year was labelled by some passengers as a “floating disaster”, which isn’t great PR. Meanwhile, a close friend of mine who happened to be on the cruise with his girlfriend and her family, described it rather lyrically as a “pathogen prison”, despite the fact he avoided getting sick.
And therein lies the problem for the shiny white cruise ships that sail our waters. Once you’re onboard and at sea, your space is confined and thus a viral epidemic is eminently more likely to spread.
Dr Kerri Parnell, editor in chief of Travel Weekly’s sister publication The Medical Republic was quite succinct when describing to me how the Norovirus – the most common ailment striking down passengers at sea – spreads. “Faecal-oral transmission,” were her words. Stop and think about that for a minute; it’s not a pleasant mental image you’re conjuring, is it?
Brace yourself, but here’s how the spread of illness works in practice. “One person arrives on the trip sick or brewing the illness. They’re infected already. In the medical world, they’re called the index case, but let’s just call them Jeff,” Parnell says.
“Jeff gets stomach pains during breakfast, and rushes off to the restaurant bathroom. It gets ugly in there. In his pain and distress, Jeff fails to realise that by the end of his bathroom ordeal, there’s just a tiny speck of faecal matter on his wrist. So when he emerges fifteen minutes later, in a hurry to get back to his wife alone at the table, he washes his hands but without the necessary thoroughness and vigour.”
“From here Jeff touches the toilet door (now contaminated), his cutlery (now contaminated) and his wine glass (now contaminated), and you get the idea… Suddenly there are a lot of contaminated surfaces that others are potentially exposed to.”
Now, the spread of said viruses is clearly in no way the fault of the cruiselines themselves, who, I have every faith, do their utmost to maintain strict hygiene standards onboard. The problem is that – as is the case with the misguided anti-vaccination crowd – it only takes a few who are cavalier when it comes to cleanliness to imperil hundreds if not thousands of passengers.
Once someone has picked up the bug, one uncovered sneeze in a crowded restaurant could then confine dozens to several sweaty and uncomfortable nights driving the porcelain bus.
So, what’s the solution? Well, do your absolute best to stay clean and healthy, people. Hygiene is everyone’s responsibility and passengers onboard cruise ships should be constantly reminded of this.
But for those who need a refresher, Dr Parnell has some excellent tips for those heading to sea in the near future. “A good first step is not shaking hands with more people than you have to, or touching things that can be avoided – stair rails, door handles, or anything hundreds of other people are touching,” she said.
Being extra vigilant when in the loo is a high priority too. “Be super careful about what you touch in the bathroom, and consider using a paper towel or tissue to turn off the tap and open door handles on the way out. Wash your hands often and for 30 seconds with soap and water before you eat anything.
“And use hand sanitiser very regularly, especially if there are known cases of gastro onboard. And if someone says they have ‘an upset tummy’, find a reason – any reason – not to share their table.”
If reading this is making you think “tell us something we don’t know” then that’s great, you’re not part of the problem. But I can assure you that if more people took these relatively simple precautions, a large number of cruise passengers would have much more enjoyable holidays. At the end of the day, that’s what all of us working in the travel industry are looking to provide at some level.
So happy cruising all, and for goodness sake, stay clean and sanitary for the sake of everyone.
Image credit: iStock