Hilo, and Now Honolulu, Dodge Influx of Cruise Ship Passengers

Mar 19, 2020

Aerial view of cruise ship arriving at Hilo Harbor on the Big Island.
Credit Cruise Ship Mapper

Big Island residents are breathing a sigh of relief after state authorities canceled a cruise ship’s emergency plans to unload hundreds of its passengers at Hilo Harbor. State transportation officials say the Holland America Line vessel is now set to arrive in Honolulu Friday, but none of its more than 800 passengers will be allowed off.

A cruise ship’s plans to dock in Hilo set off a wave of panic among local residents. Some expressed concern the influx of visitors might increase the chances of the virus spreading on island. Mayor Harry Kim says the decision to reroute the cruise ship to Honolulu was made out of an abundance of caution.

“You have your responsibilities of protecting this island and one of the ways of protecting it is to minimize people coming here,” says Kim, “Those 800 passengers were looking forward to this trip and we had to cut them out from it. There’s no pleasure in that.”

The Holland America Line cruise ship, the Maasdam left Auckland, New Zealand, on March 1, with a final destination of San Diego, California. But as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded around the world, Pacific Island nations along the cruise ship’s route began closing its ports.

Maasdam passenger Terri Shanks says she sympathizes with concern among Hilo residents. The 49-year-old British citizen and her 8-year-old son Cameron have been at sea for 24 days.

“I completely understand the concerns of the people of Hawaiʻi. I had a lady message me just today saying you know how worried people were, you know the shops are bare of supplies, the hospitals you know are much smaller hospitals that can’t cope,” says Shanks, “So I completely understand. We’d be trying to do the same, absolutely.”

Shanks says cruise ship authorities told passengers last week that they would be able to get off the ship in Hilo and so many began booking air travel out of Hilo and Kona airports. As for Shanks and her son, they have a long and uncertain journey home to the United Kingdom.

“I’m concerned obviously about taking a child off the ship that is virus-free and having to go through possibly three international airports with crowds and chaos like that,” says Shanks, “But I think now we’re so unsettled that we just want to go home and be back with our family.”

The Maasdam is scheduled to arrive at Honolulu Harbor Pier 2 on Friday, March 20, and scheduled to depart the following day. According to the cruise ship company, the Maasdam has no known or suspected cases of COVID-19.

Initially, the state Department of Transportation was prepared to allow the 842 passengers to disembark in Honolulu and return home. Screening plans for passengers were also announced by Governor David Ige at a press conference Tuesday. However, DOT Director Jade Butay announced late Wednesday that the cruise ship would only be allowed to refuel and restock on food and supplies. No passengers will be allowed to leave the ship.

“The health and safety of all people in Hawaiʻi is always at the forefront of operational decisions,” said Butay.

A second cruise ship, the Norwegian Jewel operated by Norwegian Cruise Lines, is carrying approximately 1,700 passengers, and expected to arrive at Honolulu Harbor Sunday, March 22.

“Presently, all state resources are focused and directed towards containing the spread of COVID-19. Allowing more than 2,500 passengers and crew to disembark will further strain these resources,” says Butay, “Neither ship had originally planned to make Hawaiʻi its final port and both will carry on to mainland destinations, where more resources can be marshalled to handle these passengers and crew properly.”

Port authorities around the world have been reluctant to allow cruise ships to disembark amid the global spread of the coronavirus. The cruise line industry estimates 40 ships with 90,000 passengers were at sea when a directive came down from the Cruise Line International Association placing a 30-day moratorium on cruise ship operations in the U.S. Other cruise lines including the Royal Carribean and Princess Cruises have initiated even longer moratorium of 60-days.