Elderly passengers thought they were in for the cruise of their lives when they boarded Holland America’s Amsterdam at Port Everglades on Jan. 4 for a four-month global tour.
That was before the novel coronavirus sparked a worldwide crisis that has thrown the travel industry into unprecedented upheaval.
Just days after the world’s major cruise lines decided to temporarily suspend all new voyages and wind down ongoing ones, passengers about the Amsterdam learned they’ll be forced off the ship nearly two months early — not in Fort Lauderdale where they started, but on the other side of the globe in Fremantle, Australia.
Once off the boat, they’ll be on their own to find ways to fly back home — and they’re not happy about it at all.
The ship’s captain has asked the restive passengers to stop visiting the ship’s Guest Services desk with documentation and requests to remain on board and to stop visiting the Medical Department because medical staff feel “intimidated.”
A spokeswoman for Holland America, meanwhile, said the company evaluated returning the ship to the U.S. but determined “it is not a safe option.”
Georgina and Humberto Cruz are veteran cruisers, and Georgina is a freelance travel writer who frequently posts blog entries about their adventures on Holland America’s own website.
Yet Georgina Cruz’ latest dispatch was delivered not to the cruise line’s website, but to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, where both worked prior to retiring.
“Holland America is forcing Amsterdam guests to disembark far away from home and take multiple flights adding up to 30 plus hours,” she wrote, adding that the ordeal could be “a serious threat to their health and may even kill some of them.”
Holland America, along with all other major cruise lines, suspended its operations late last week to help global efforts to suspend spread of the coronavirus. Three cruises scheduled to depart from Fort Lauderdale or San Diego last weekend were canceled. Six cruises were allowed to end as scheduled over the next two weeks.
And two longer cruises, including the Amsterdam’s, were cut short. Along with moving up the Amsterdam’s scheduled May 12 termination to March 22, the cruise line is ending the Maasdam’s voyage two weeks early — on March 20 in Hilo, Hawaii, instead of April 3 in San Diego.
Most of the Amsterdam’s guests are in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, Georgina Cruz wrote. Many opt to travel by cruise ship rather than by plane because plane travel could aggravate preexisting conditions, such as COPD, eardrum problems, or a propensity to get blood clots.
Holland America, owned by Carnival Corp., is providing “some compensation for air (travel), though not enough to cover costs to fly back home, and telling guests to make their own arrangements,” Georgina Cruz wrote.
While no cases of coronavirus have been reported aboard the ship, the soon-to-be stranded passengers fear they will be more vulnerable to infection if forced to fly home, she wrote.
“We are talking about the stress and strain of long flights without the best of air ventilation, the impact on many elderly and frail passengers of hours without sleep, the expected lengthy — and according to news reports, often chaotic — waits at airports and immigration and health checkpoints, the uncertainty of whether flights would even be available or canceled after we are put off the ship., the effort of lugging carry-on bags for hours, then collecting multiple pieces of luggage (if indeed luggage can be taken) when we get home.”
Georgina Cruz said the couple has booked three flights to get back to Florida and hope “all of them will get us there.”
Holland America spokeswoman Sally Andrews, responding to a request for information about the Amsterdam decision, said by email that the effort to get guests off the company’s cruise ships and back home “grows more challenging by the day.”
Andrews said the cruise line is grateful that Australia granted permission to allow the ship to disembark there after the nation announced it was halting cruise ship arrivals and added, “Returning to the U.S. with guests on board was evaluated but it is not a safe option.”
The spokeswoman continued:, “The ship’s path is remote and countries and islands are not accepting cruise ships. The journey is estimated to take 30-45 days and we know we will encounter changes along the way with provisioning and fuel. Medical capabilities on board the ship are limited and are designed to stabilize people before getting them to shoreside medical facilities for further evaluation and treatment. Keeping people on the ship along this route is very risky for medical support services and life-saving situations given the closed borders of ports along the way.”
The cruise line is aware that guests have concerns about air travel, Andrews said. “Our medical team both on board and shoreside are fully engaged in reviewing the small number of guests on board we know require assistance with their travel planning.
“There are many more that would like to come back on the ship than fly home but regrettably with the global system rapidly shutting down and our very restricted ability to operate n the world, we are focused on helping guests get home as quickly as possible.”
According to Holland America’s website, the Amsterdam is a midsize ship with a three-story atrium and room for 1,380 guests.
A 128-night world cruise, similar to the one Georgina and Humberto Cruz are on now, is scheduled to depart Port Everglades on Jan. 4, 2021, and return on May 12. Fares range from $22,499 per person for an interior cabin with no view to $43,499 per person for a balcony suite.
On Tuesday, Amsterdam’s captain, Jonathan Mercer, asked passengers by email to stop agitating to stay on board past the planned debarkation in Australia and to “please cease visiting the Medical Department.”
“Please do not submit any requests or documentation to Guest Services. We very much regret having to make this decision, the health and safety of our guests is of paramount importance. Unfortunately, matters have become such that Medical staff, bound by their Hippocratic Oath, feel intimidated.”