The usually serene waters of the Red Sea, a popular haven for cruise ships and their passengers seeking exotic destinations, have recently been stirred by escalating geopolitical tensions.
This unrest, primarily stemming from conflicts involving Houthi rebels in Yemen, has caused numerous cancellations and itinerary changes on the world’s largest cruise lines.
Conflict in the Red Sea
The Red Sea, which connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean via the Suez Canal, has recently become a focal point of geopolitical tensions. The root of the current unrest lies in the escalating conflict involving Houthi rebels.
In recent months, these rebels, backed by Iran, have been using armed drones and sea mines to disrupt maritime traffic, targeting attacks on oil tankers and cargo ships with attempted hijacking of commercial vessels.
Strategically positioned, the Red Sea is pivotal for ships facilitating trade between Asian and European nations. In fact, according to the Associated Press, 40% of trade between the continents passes through this region, including essentials like oil, fuel, and food.
According to Freightos Group, a global freight booking platform, the Suez Canal facilitates the daily passage of over 1 million barrels of crude oil, underscoring its critical importance in the international shipping and energy sectors.
As such, the attacks on commercial ships have raised alarms across the globe, prompting responses from major world powers. The United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom have increased their naval presence in the region, conducting patrols and escorting commercial vessels to ensure safe passage.
On January 12, the Allies began airstrikes, with the most recent strike by U.S. and U.K. forces in Yemen in late February, sparking protests and threats of more violence from rebels, significantly heightening the uncertainty and risk in the Red Sea region. This tense atmosphere has caused numerous cruise companies to reassess their operations in these waters.
Cruise Lines Respond to Red Sea Tensions
Cruise ships traverse the Red Sea to visit ports of call in the Middle East, including Egypt, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. For instance, Virgin Voyages’ Valiant Lady has cancelled her return to Australia following a successful inaugural run due to the tensions in the Red Sea. Instead, Valiant Lady is being redirected to the Caribbean.
“Based on the regional and government advice we have received, we remain very concerned about potential escalations in the Red Sea over the next 12 months,” Virgin Voyage said in a statement.
“This significant and ongoing conflict puts unacceptable risks for safe passage through the region for our Sailors, crew, and vessel. As a result, we have been left with no choice but to cancel our 2024/25 voyage season plans for Resilient Lady, impacting the late 2024 and early 2025 repositioning voyages between Europe and Australia and a second sailing season in Australian waters.”
Carnival Corporation, which owns Holland America Line, Carnival Cruise Lines, Cunard, Costa Cruises, P&O Cruises, Seabourn, and AIDA Cruises, rerouted itineraries for 12 ships across all its brands.
The changes include the cancellation of several spring 2024 sailings on AIDAbella, AIDAblu, and AIDAprima, as well as the itinerary changes to avoid the Suez Canal on Costa Deliziosa and P&O Cruises’ Arcadia.
P&O Cruises has publicly stated they are in constant contact with relevant authorities.
“We are monitoring the situation on a daily basis, and we will advise guests should any changes to the itinerary become necessary. The safety, security, and well-being of guests and crew is our absolute priority,” a P&O spokesperson said to Cruise Hive.
Cunard Line also provided Cruise Hive with a similar statement, “We are committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of our guests and crew. Our global security team is actively monitoring the situation in the region and working in close consultation with global security experts and government authorities to make decisions that prioritise safety, including adjusting our itineraries if necessary.”
Similarly, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) cancelled Norwegian Dawn and Norwegian Sky itineraries, which were scheduled to sail in the Red Sea between late October and early December, indicating the belief the turmoil will last well into the year.
“We have been monitoring the situation in the Red Sea and despite our best hopes that it would de-escalate, we have made the decision to alter published itineraries scheduled to transit through the region,” NCL said in a statement.
MSC Cruises, the largest cruise operator in the Middle East, cancelled three “Grand Voyages” set to sail in April, returning MSC Spendida, MSC Opera, and MSC Virtuosa to Europe via a Cape Horn route without passengers. It also rerouted MSC Poesia’s 115-day voyage to avoid the Suez Canal.
“Considering the risks of sailing in the Red Sea due to the ongoing attacks on ships, we have been obliged to cancel the Grand Voyage from South Africa to Italy,” MSC Cruises said in a letter to passengers scheduled to cruise on MSC Splendida. “We know that you spent time planning your cruise and we sincerely apologize for the disappointment that this will likely cause, and we want you to know that this decision was made with your safety and well-being in mind.”
Currently, Holland America’s Zuiderdam is still scheduled to travel the Red Sea during its 2024 “Grand Voyage.” The cruise line says, “Our global security team is closely watching the situation in the region. We will continue working in consultation with global experts and authorities to make decisions that prioritize safety, including adjusting our itineraries if necessary. If itineraries are adjusted, we will directly notify affected guests.”
Understanding Passenger Rights and Options Amid Itinerary Changes
Cancellations and itinerary changes have raised questions about passenger rights and available options. The policies in these scenarios can be complex and vary by cruise line, but there are some general guidelines that passengers can consider.
If passengers cancel their cruise booking, they will typically be subject to the usual cancellation charges outlined by the cruise line’s policy.
However, the situation is different if there are official advisories against travel to the region, such as those issued by the Foreign Commonwealth Development Office and the U.S. Department of State. In such cases, cruise companies are generally expected to offer an alternative sailing or a full refund, providing a safety net for passengers affected by these extraordinary circumstances.
All cruise lines announcing cancellations have also specified full refunds to passengers, while those rerouting are less clear. Some lines have offered flexibility in rebooking a new cruise, while others simply change the itinerary and apologize for any inconvenience to passengers.
In light of these changes, passengers are advised to stay informed about the latest travel advisories and communicate with their cruise line for specific policies regarding itinerary changes, cancellations, and refunds.