Filipino Cruise Ship Crew Who Got Stuck Onboard During the Lockdown are Ready to Sail Again
Jannel Montero was in Sydney, Australia when news about a highly infectious new disease started spreading worldwide. The 27-year-old was working as a staff member of Dream Cruises, a cruise line owned by Genting Hong Kong. Things still seemed to be relatively normal, until the ship arrived in Langkawi, Malaysia. By then, governments around the world had started imposing strict quarantines, and the same was announced for cruise ships. Suddenly, passengers and crew members couldn’t disembark. They were stuck at sea.
The Philippines announced what it called enhanced community quarantine—or what was essentially a lockdown—on March 14, 2020, just days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Because he had limited access to the internet on the ship, Montero only found out about it when he got a message from his father. Rather than worry about his own predicament, he says he was more concerned about where his family was going to get food and daily supplies.
“I knew I was safe inside of the ship, but I didn’t know what was going to happen to my parents,” he says.
For MJ Francia, the fear was more about job security. She had only started working in a cruise ship in November 2019, and like Montero, she was assigned to provide hosting and entertainment to guests. The following February, Singapore had announced mobility restrictions and cruise ship passengers were being asked to go home by the end of the month.
“I felt okay at first, but when I finally realized that it would be our last day with our guests, I felt the sadness since it was my first contract and yet I couldn’t maximize the time and experience there,” she says. “And I was scared that we would go home.”
Jannel Montero onboard the cruise ship where he worked
A badly hit industry
Montero and Francia are just two of the more than 325,000 Filipinos working in the cruise ship industry. Their job descriptions cover just about every aspect of cruising—from housekeeping and engineering, to food and beverage, to management and, of course, entertainment. The pandemic brought many industries to their knees, but perhaps none has been as hard-hit as the cruise ship industry.
Worldwide, the cruise ship industry generates about $150 billion in worldwide economic activity and supports nearly two million jobs, according to data by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the world’s largest cruise industry trade association. “From mid-March, when the suspension of cruise operations began, through the end of September, the worldwide impact will be a loss of $50 billion in economic activity, 334,000 jobs and $15 billion in wages.”
Because the Philippines supplies the industry with so many of its manpower, it is particularly affected by the global shutdown. The Economist estimates that about a third of all cruise ship crews are Filipino, and with so many of them sidelined because of the pandemic, the economic impact may be nothing short of catastrophic.
Mental health check
But it’s not just the loss of jobs that’s alarming. Last month, Bloomberg ran a story about the damaging psychological effects of the prolonged quarantines on cruise ship workers.
“Separated from families, confined mostly to tiny cabins, with no obvious legal recourse and at times no pay, sailors experienced a more extreme version of the household lockdowns that have sent people tumbling into depression,” it said.
The article claims several of these workers have reportedly died by suicide, at least two of whom were Filipinos.
I asked Montero and Francia, who both spent weeks quarantining in their respective ships, about their own experiences during the lockdown period. Apart from bouts of worry and anxiety, both reported feeling generally secure.
“At first it was okay, the feeling (was) usual, but (as) time (went on), we started to feel the anxiety and overthinking,” says Montero, who spent a total of 24 days in quarantine, first in Langkawi, Malaysia, and then in Manila Bay in the Philippines. “Sometimes we (felt) sad, but thankfully, because our company gave us free access to the internet…we felt at peace every time we got updates from our family that they are okay and safe.”
Montero says he and his colleagues spent the days doing work trainings and team building activities. When they had free time, they would go swimming in the ship’s pool and even devised a game to take their mind off the reality of their situation.
“Me and my friends, we did the ‘Quarantine Photoshoot Challenge,’ (where) we did photo shoots inside the cabin and utilize anything that you (had) inside to create a great editorial photo shoot,” he says. “Somehow it (worked) because we forgot what (was) happening outside of the ship because we just enjoyed laughing (at) each others’ photo entry.”
Francia relates a similar experience. Her ship arrived in the Philippines on May 3 and docked at Pier 15, although government regulations at the time meant they were unable to disembark. She ended up being quarantined there for 17 days. She says she and the other crew members all had individual rooms and were not allowed to go out. Food was delivered and left outside their rooms four times a day, and they were all required to undergo temperature checks every day.
“I must say that my mental state that time (was) fine since I (worked out), watched movies, and, most of the time, I was talking to my family and friends,” she says.
“But there (were) moments that I just wanted to go out and go for a walk and just breathe the ‘fresh air’ coming from Manila Bay,” she laughs.
“Also, I felt the frustration that I was back here (in the Philippines) but I couldn’t go home (yet).
“As for my friends, we all (felt) the same, making ourselves busy, and feeling that (as long as we had) internet, we (were) good.”
Genting Dream, which is owned by Dream Cruises
Support from cruise ship companies
It undoubtedly made a difference when the cruise ship management and company were responsive to their workers’ needs.
Genting Cruise Lines (GCL), for example, said it coordinated with various regional authorities, including the Philippines, in the transfer and disembarkation of its crew members, which had to be done in phases due to the various nationalities of its crew members.
“During the hiatus period, there were global air travel restrictions in many countries and limited flight availabilities,” Michael Goh, president of Dream Cruises and head of international sales of GCL, told Esquire Philippines. “As such, we undertook the initiative to deploy our ships and sail to the different countries to get majority of our crew home safely. Prior to that, we continued to support our crew members that were unable to return home by providing meals and accommodations on our ships.”
GCL also provided accommodations at accredited hotel quarantine facilities by the local government, as well as the sanitation of transportation for the hotel and airport transfers.
“The crew members’ conditions and well-being during the quarantine period are constantly being monitored by our designated manning partners/shipping agents including proper communication platforms to raise their concerns and queries, as well as access to further medical treatment if required,” Goh added. “All related expenses during their travel and quarantine arrangements are being shouldered by the company.”
Montero, who worked in a Dream Cruises ship, backed up his employers’ statement about taking care of its crew. He says the company and manning agent provided regular updates about the situation and reminded the staff to get in touch with them if they had any inquiries or required any assistance.
GCL currently has two ships under Dream Cruises actively deployed in the region: World Dream in Singapore, where approximately 70 percent of crew members are Filipinos; and Explorer Dream in Taiwan, where close to 30 percent of the crew are Filipinos.
“Starting in July and November 2020 in Taiwan and Singapore, respectively, Genting Cruise Lines had commenced safe pilot cruises for its Dream Cruises ships,” Goh said. “Filipino crew members are one of the nationalities that we prioritize to be deployed and re-employed back to both World Dream and Explorer Dream.
“We are working hard to continue to inform and educate consumers of the enhanced safety and preventive measures that are readily in place across the fleet to rebuild confidence in the cruise industry,” he added.
Setting sail once again
GCL is only one of the host of cruise ship companies that have restarted operations in the midst of the pandemic. Despite some sobering figures—two of the world’s largest cruise lines, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean Group, both experienced a 99 and 94 percent decrease in revenue in the second quarter of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019—there are indications that the worst may be over for the industry.
From early July through mid-December 2020, more than 200 sailings have already taken place, according to CLIA. Those sailings, of course, included a raft of health and safety measures, which will likely become standard for the foreseeable future. In a survey conducted by CLIA, which is included in its 2021 State of the Cruise Industry Outlook, two out of three cruisers (or people who frequently go on cruises) said they were willing to cruise within a year, while 58 percent of international vacationers who have never cruised, said they are likely to cruise in the next few years.
“The success of these initial sailings demonstrates new protocols are working as designed—to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 among passengers, crew and the destinations cruise ships visit,” the CLIA report said.
In addition, cruise lines said they anticipate at least 16 new ocean ships to operate in 2021, which would bring the total of CLIA ocean ships to 270.
"As we continue our journey in 2021, we remain highly optimistic of the continued demand for cruises," Goh said. "With the enhanced safety and preventive measures in place, it will set the blue print for us to continue to work with various local authorities to resume safe pilot cruises in different countries in the not too distant future."
And what of the crew members? Would they still be willing to come aboard and do it all over again, despite the health risks and the lingering questions about the future of the industry?
“Yes, I’m still planning to go back to (work) in the cruise ship because this is the kind of job that I really love,” says Montero, who is currently unemployed. “Doing entertainment is my life, and I believe that the cruise industry will survive the pandemic, maybe not that fast but slowly, it will.”
“Yes, I’m just waiting for my new schedule,” Francia says. “I think as long as the guests and the ship are following the new rules and regulations, the cruise industry will survive this hard time.”