Planes, cruise ships, trains, cars, buses… And cargo ships. If you want to cross the Atlantic or the Pacific and you are not quite convinced about flying through the skies at more than 10,000 meters high or you are looking for an option that reduces your carbon footprint, you have cargo ships at your fingertips. Yes, the same ones that cross the oceans to the top of containers and merchandise. It is not a popular option, it is not designed for large groups nor is it cheap – the thing of paying by giving the callus with the rest of the crew is no longer taken-; but it is among the alternatives to move.
Or was, at least. As has happened in many other areas, the crisis has taken its toll on the sector and led the businesses that are responsible for managing it to an extreme situation.
What is it and how exactly do they work?. The routes aboard cargo ships are far from being the most popular option among travellers, but they offer an alternative for those who prefer not to take a plane or are looking for a different experience. It is estimated that, more or less, only 1% of the ships in the sector accept passengers beyond their crews. And the offer of those that do is very small, with only a handful of users per boat. The agency Freighter Travel with Sea Travel, for example, specifies that some have capacity for “up to 12 passengers”.
In terms of demand, according to the data it handles Wall Street JournalThroughout 2019, the last year free of the “COVID effect”, less than 4,000 people paid for a freighter ticket. The data is light years away from the 29.7 million passengers who traveled that same period on conventional ocean liners, aboard chartered cruise ships for tourists.
Neither low cost nor for all travelers. The experience is peculiar, but it is certainly not a low cost alternative. According to some travelers who have already tried it and the specialized website Seaplus, on average the price is around 100 euros per day per passenger, an amount that includes expenses such as food, accommodation and laundry service; but to which the payment of fees can be added. Other sources slightly widen the range, placing it between 45 and 130.
The passenger can manage the trip through specialized agencies —Frachtsciff Reisen Hamburg or The Cruise People provide data, for example— and must take into account some rules, such as that the luggage load usually ranges from 45 to 120 kilos, the language board the ships is English and the allowed ages range from 14 to 79 years. Another important fact is that the forecasts with the dates of departure and arrival can be altered. On the ship, the crew’s meal times are followed, which does not mean — Seaplus emphasizes — that travelers can work as one more.
The shadow of the pandemic. COVID-19 shook many sectors, but few felt its effects as much as passenger transport. Air routes were suspended, rail and road services were abolished, and cruise ships were cancelled. The reason, simple: the confinement, the “puncture” in demand and, above all, the restrictions on mobility. Even when the offer began to thaw, the operators were forced to maintain security measures that affected their capacity and availability of places, such as the limitation of capacity.
The very small business of cargo ship travel was no exception. At the beginning of the pandemic, in March 2020, most of the operators that are in charge of managing the ships vetoed the passage of paying passengers. The objective? Reduce the risks of contagion and protect your crews. Two years later, however, the shadow of COVID is still present.
While in the rest of the passenger transport sector the situation seems to be normalizing little by little —in 2021, for example, Aena closed with an increase in passenger traffic of 57.7% compared to the previous year, a notable increase, although still at values much lower than those of 2019—, the ship travel business continues to be marked by COVID-19. As detailed in the newspaper The Wall Street Journal, the prohibitions that still remain in force have practically knocked out activity, at “almost non-existent” levels. The vetoes to the passage of payment that continue to be applied force specialized agents to (un)wait until the regulatory scenario changes.
An effect that cruise ships have not escaped either. Voyages on cargo ships, of course, are not the only ones that have suffered the effect of the health crisis in the oceans. After years of escalation and a sustained rise in demand, Statista shows that the flow of cruise passengers also deflated in 2020, weighed down by restrictions and paralysis. If in 2019 29.7 million passengers were reached, the following year the figure had dropped to 5.8.
At the beginning of March 2020, before the confinement was decreed, in Spain there were already cancellations of stopovers due to COVID-19. In the Port of Barcelona, one of the most important in Europe, a 77% decrease in the number of cruise passengers was recorded at the end of that same month. As a security measure against contagion, the Government of Spain ended up prohibiting cruise ship docking that month, a measure that was not lifted until June 2021.
Unlike what is happening with the passenger transport business on commercial ships, the cruise ship business seems to be gradually heading down a positive path. In November, the International Association of Cruise Lines in Spain (CLIA) showed its confidence in being able to fully recover in 2022. Moreover, according to its estimates, between 75 and 80% of the ships would already be operational before the end of the year. Throughout 2022 they were confident of climbing 100%.
The other enemy: port congestion. The prohibitions derived from COVID-19 are not the only ones that complicate the reactivation of passenger travel on cargo ships. The sector faces another challenge, and no less: the congestion of the ports, which has sometimes left ships waiting in the open sea for longer than expected and has forced them to prolong voyages.
In October, for example, several container ships headed for the United Kingdom ended up being redirected to European docks as they were unable to unload their merchandise due to bottlenecks caused by the pandemic and Brexit, with a serious shortage of trucks in the country.
It is not an isolated case. Just a few days ago, the United States announced measures to reduce congestion problems in ports. Added to these handicaps is the very complexity of the bureaucracy. “Our biggest concern is that passengers will be stuck on ships for an extended period of time due to the constant and endless changes in rules and regulations in various countries,” an agent acknowledged in January. The Wall Street Journal.
Images | Johan Taljaard (Unsplash) and Joe Ross (Flickr)