Update, May 1, 2009, 1:14 p.m. EDT: Royal Caribbean has since changed Mariner of the Seas' Mexico itineraries through its June 14 sailing.
(4:30 p.m.) -- When Carnival's Holiday arrived back in Mobile this morning (the ship called on Progreso Monday, though its Tuesday Cozumel stop was canceled), health officials were there to greet disembarking passengers with informative handouts about the virus. Meanwhile, Colorado's 9NEWS.com reported today that state's first two cases of swine flu, one of which is a woman in her 30's who just returned from a vacation that included a few days in San Diego -- and a cruise in Mexico.
Authorities haven't yet pinpointed where or when she may have gotten ill, as there are confirmed cases of swine flu in both San Diego and Mexico, but with the words "cruise" and "flu" increasingly appearing together in the news, and on message boards like Cruise Critic's, an important question has been raised:
How will this near-pandemic outbreak impact cruise travelers next?
Highly likely is the further screening of cruise passengers, who are already queried upon boarding to detect potential communicable illnesses, such as Norovirus. Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen tells us that the line is "in the process of instituting a questionnaire for embarking guests -- as I believe many other cruise lines are as well -- as part of the screening process." Industry trade Web site cruise-community.com confirms that the cruise industry at large is in active talks with U.S. health officials to develop a standardized process; more details are expected later today.
It's also possible that cruise lines will revisit their rebooking and compensation policies in light of consumer response. Already today, Princess Cruises backed down from a hard stance to say that it will offer Sapphire and Star Princess passengers a 50 percent future cruise credit. Also, concessions have been made for unhappy guests onboard Carnival Splendor's current cruise, which was rerouted to San Francisco after all of its Mexican Riviera port calls were eliminated. Cruise Critic Community Manager Laura Sterling is onboard with a group of nearly 200 members and hosts, and tells us that the captain pulled strings in order to make an impromptu stop in Long Beach today -- where the cruise will officially end on May 3 -- to offer an early disembarkation to those who didn't want to continue onward to San Francisco.
Some 525 passengers (counted by hand by Host Joe!) jumped ship -- read more about it here!
Finally, it remains to be seen whether we'll see more itinerary changes -- and how long it will be before things return to normal. Cruise lines that call on Mexican ports -- in the Western Caribbean and Mexican Riviera, or on Panama Canal transits or repositioning cruises -- have published new itineraries through mid-May, but none have yet announced plans beyond that point.
One positive note: The Los Angeles Times reported today that this spreading strain of influenza is actually relatively mild, and "may not even do as much damage as the run-of-the-mill flu outbreaks that occur each winter." The story says that "simple mathematics" suggests worst-case scenarios are likely to be avoided with this outbreak.
Stay tuned to Cruise Critic for the latest swine flu news as it pertains to cruise travel.
--by Melissa Baldwin Paloti, Managing Editor
Cruise Critic Members Speak Out on Compensation, Rebook Options
Carnival Leads Pack in Compensation, Cancellation
Swine Flu Mexico: Cruise Traveler Q&A
Full List of Itinerary Changes By Cruise Line
On the Boards: Live Updates from Redirected Carnival Splendor
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Swine Flu and Cruise Ship Travel: What's Next?
April 30, 2009