Monday 30 March 2020

Poor Tor

Oddly, I rarely feel sorry for billionaires. In fact, I don't think I ever have - but right now I'm hoping that Torstein Hagen isn't too down in the dumps. He's the appealingly cheerful, enthusiastic and approachable Norwegian who's founder and chairman of the 79-ship Viking cruise line. I saw him in January getting excited in LA about expanding his fleet from river and ocean cruisers into expedition vessels that will go to Antarctica and the Arctic, as well as the Great Lakes. It was, naturally, a very positive and energising event, and everyone came away from it full of both admiration for Tor, and eagerness to get hands-on with his new product. 
Roll on to March and how things have changed. The Viking ships are lined up empty at various ports, while others like Silver Muse are pootling over the world's oceans with only crew on board; and some liners have even become plague ships where unhappy people have been imprisoned for weeks, desperate for release and return home. It's a far cry from the image of self-indulgent luxury and non-stop good times that is sold to 28 million people annually worldwide, generating $200 billion in economic activity. Cruising has been for some years now the fastest-growing sector of the travel industry, and shipyards everywhere have been working as fast as they can to churn out even more liners.
It is a lovely way to relax. I wouldn't call it travelling, exactly, because cruise passengers are pretty much getting the travel writer experience: being looked after very well as they skim over the surface of the places they visit. Just dipping into a port for the day, going on an excursion, you're not properly travelling - you're just being the most superficial sort of tourist. Which is not to be disparaging, particularly. That kind of experience is perfectly all right by most cruising people; they reckon they can always come back another time for a proper look at the places that took their fancy. 
But - once international travel has opened up again, and who knows how far in the future that will be - how popular will cruising be, now that everyone has seen what perfect incubation chambers ships have been for Covid-19? Norovirus was bad enough, but at least it didn't kill you. Can't say my hand will be up, really, and I won't be the only one nervous. So what will that mean for Torstein, and all the other faceless CEOs - and their crews, and port service providers, and day-excursion companies, and shipyard workers, and so on and so forth? 

And that's not even starting to think about airlines and hotels and travel and activity companies, and restaurants and souvenir shops and taxis and buses and, and, and... Oh yes, and travel writers too. Grim, eh? Though I do take some comfort from Tor's optimism in just now announcing that his promise to conquer the Mississippi (the preserve of entirely US-owned operations) will be fulfilled in 2022.

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