Canadians stuck on cruise ships looking for any port in the coronavirus storm

Canadians stuck on cruise ships looking for any port in the coronavirus storm
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TORONTO AND VANCOUVER—Earlier Tuesday, a note was left on Kadi Kaljuste’s bed in her cabin aboard the MS Marina, an Oceania cruise ship sailing up and down the west coast of South America looking for a port. The message said the ship is now bound for Miami.

The stated destination comes after three days of wandering the ocean looking for a place to dock after being turned away from Lima, Peru, their initial terminus destination that had been scheduled for March 15. Peru closed its ports to cruise ships due to COVID-19 concerns, causing the Marina to turn around to steam for Chile, only to be told halfway there that port was also not receiving cruise ships.

“When we left (Toronto) there was just no concern whatsoever because it was so contained in Asia, so we didn’t even think twice about going or not going,” Kaljuste, a 63-year-old Toronto resident, told the Star via video chat from aboard the Marina. About 150 Canadians are on the ship, she said. It can hold up to 1,250 passengers.

But, despite the Marina’s good fortune to find a place willing to allow her to dock, many cruise ships are still roaming the ocean in search of a friendly port. Even if a port is found, the difficulties of getting back to Canada are another challenge.

Mark Richardson’s parents left on the “cruise of a lifetime” through Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific on Valentine’s Day, long before Ottawa’s warning to avoid the ships and international travel.

The couple, Ken and Eileen Richardson from Spruce Grove, Alta., near Edmonton, are in their early 80s.

They are on board the MAASDAM, a Holland America cruise liner, along with about 250 other Canadians hailing from “from coast to coast,” said Richardson, who’s been in regular contact with them.

“It’s not about my parents, it’s about 250, likely mostly elderly Canadians,” Richardson said.

“Their insurance companies are saying, ‘Your government’s telling you to get home within 10 days.’ Well, what do you do when five days of that is at sea?”

The ship set sail from New Zealand on March 2. They were supposed to disembark in Papeete, Tahiti, French Polynesia, on Sunday and fly home from from there. But the ship was turned away as French Polynesia closed its ports.

The plan was to reroute to Hilo on the big island of Hawaii, and arrive on Friday, but now they’re being redirected to Honolulu on Oahu.

“And now we’re not sure whether they’re going to be allowed off the ship,” said Richardson.

He said no one on board has tested positive or is showing symptoms. It’s been more than two weeks since they left New Zealand, and they have been visiting remote islands along the way.

Kaljuste has been at sea on the Marina since Jan. 22, and said there’s been no sign of anyone with the virus being on board.

Tuesday’s news that they had a final destination was a relief, but Kaljuste said she feels sympathetic for other passengers who are not from the U.S. or Canada.

Many on the vessel from Europe, especially those who booked their own flights, are now scrambling to make it home as the continent shuts down flights and closes borders, she said. The ship doesn’t yet have a slot for going through the Panama Canal, making it harder to book travel.

Meanwhile, if she and her husband have trouble getting a flight, they are confident they can rent a car to drive home from Miami. Until they do disembark, Kaljuste said, the ship has continued normal service with meals and entertainment and the crew has been excellent.

She feels no real anxiety about the situation, just a surreal sensation when she looks to the world beyond the gunwales.

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Richardson contacted Global Affairs but received a generic responses, and said he’s basically been told “we have no idea what the world’s going to be like on Friday or Saturday. We can’t give you an answer right now.”

He’d like the government to ensure that the passengers are allowed to disembark in Honolulu, and when they arrive there, arrange a direct flight back to Canada, rather than going back on different planes through virus hot zones like Seattle and San Francisco.

“It’s safer for everybody involved, rather than random vectors on the way back,” Richardson said.

Government to evacuate Canadians from cruise ship with 21 reported cases of COVID-19

“Routing them home through random U.S. airports is just going to be super dangerous.”

So far, he said his parents are fine and the crew is taking good care of them. What happens once they leave the ship is a concern and he is pleading for better communication from Ottawa.

“We have three or four days to figure out what people are doing — we just need to make sure that people are doing it.”

On Monday, the federal government announced it will be making $5,000 loans available to Canadians stranded abroad to help them with their living expenses and arrangements to return home.

Global Affairs Canada warned Canadians abroad that flights could be changed or cancelled with little warning and said they should review their travel insurance to determine how COVID-19 may affect their policies.

Late Tuesday, the department sent a response to Richardson about his parents’ situation.

“We are aware of the situation with the Holland America ship and the number of Canadians on board. At the moment, we are limited on what type of assistance that we can provide,” it read. “If you have travel insurance, you may wish to reach them to find out how they might be able to provide assistance to you, should your flight be cancelled, rescheduled once you reach port or redirected to another port in another country.”
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