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Home / Economy / People itching to cruise by cargo ship hope for reversal of covid-19 bans

In November, before the Omicron wave of Covid-19 hit, Hamish Jamieson still hoped his business would make it through the pandemic. Now the managing director of Freighter Travel Ltd. isn’t so sure.

The New Zealand-based company is among a small group of travel agents specializing in passenger travel on oceangoing freighters, a decidedly niche business in the best of times and one that has dwindled to virtually nothing during the pandemic. These agents connect shipping companies with customers looking for a fairly spartan, unique journey at sea.

In March 2020, most operators of freight vessels banned paying passengers from coming aboard to protect crews from Covid-19. Nearly two years later, cargo cruises remain off-limits and freighter travel agents can do little except wait for the bans to be lifted.

“I am extremely frustrated because there’s nothing I can do about it," Mr. Jamieson said. “I suspect that I will be close to bankrupt by the end of March."

Freighter passage has for decades remained one of international travel’s best-kept secrets, in part because supply is so limited. Only around 1% of the world’s freighter ships accept passengers, according to travel agents. Those that do tend to accommodate only up to 12 people at a time, the maximum allowed without a doctor on board.

In 2019, before the pandemic, less than 4,000 people paid for passage on a freighter, according to estimates from travel agents. That is a fraction of the nearly 30 million passengers booked on conventional cruise lines in 2019, according to data provider Statista.

The traditional passenger cruise business was an early flashpoint in the pandemic, with numerous outbreaks on ships leading to suspended operations, and the sector remains under heavy strain.

Some people choose to travel by freighter because they are afraid of flying, while others do so because they want to travel internationally without adding to their carbon footprint, travel agents say. But for most travelers, freighter transport is simply too expensive, slow, tedious and unpredictable.

Leagues away from the comfort of a luxury cruise, cargo travel costs between $100 and $150 a day and demands that passengers occupy themselves for weeks—sometimes months—around the operations of a working ship. Boarding and end dates can change, and it is rare to find a reliable internet connection onboard. Most vessels offer paid passengers officer cabins, which are fairly basic but spacious, as well as a recreation room filled with entertainment that still functions without Wi-Fi, such as books, CD players and table tennis.

“I kind of treated it almost like a work retreat," said Doug Walsh, a Seattle-based author who traveled with his wife, Kristin, across the Indian Ocean on the Hatsu Crystal, a German-flagged container ship operated by Taiwan-based Evergreen Marine Corp., for 19 days in 2015.

For Mr. Walsh, every day was the same: He would wake up early and start working on his novel in the couple’s spacious cabin, taking breaks timed to coincide with the ship’s rigid meal schedule. Exercise involved walking up and down the 66 stairs from the cabin to the officers’ mess. Evenings were spent watching the ship’s array of German DVDs that offered English subtitles, and snacking on Haribo gummies and chocolate-covered marzipan bought from the ship’s store.

“We really enjoyed it," Mr. Walsh said. “But I will say, after two weeks, we had had enough. We wanted off the boat by then."

For some travelers, the views of the wide open sea, the feeling of complete geographic isolation and the lack of distractions help stave off serious bouts of cabin fever, said Arne Gudde, founder of the Berlin-based Langsamreisen, or “Slowtravel" in English.

“It has a meditative vibe, in that the longer you’re out at sea, and the less you’re exposed to the stimulations of normal life, the more subtle your perception gets," Mr. Gudde said.

Ward Hulselmans, a former television screenwriter from Belgium who has twice traveled by freighter, said the journey is a spiritual experience.

“You stare at the sea, and the clouds and the sky, maybe go back to your cabin, take a nap, go back outside….The day is completely empty, but you see things you didn’t see before," he said.

Mr. Hulselmans was one of the last people to travel by freighter before the pandemic, arriving in Istanbul after a 10-day voyage from Antwerp on Dec. 1, 2019. Shipping lines suspended their passenger services around three months later.

Freighter travel agents either refunded their 2020 passengers or kept their deposits hoping to rebook them later. But 2021 came and went, and most shipping companies still aren’t offering passenger trips.

Langsamreisen and Hamburg-Frachtschiffreisen, the freighter-voyages division of travel-management company ATPI Hamburg GmbH, remained solvent by organizing other kinds of excursions, such as trans-Atlantic journeys on noncargo ships, ferry crossings and trips on sailing boats, according to executives at the companies. They also received financial support from the German government during the pandemic.

Some smaller shipping companies plan to wade back into the passenger market soon. Kerstin Ronai, a freighter-voyages agent at ATPI Hamburg, said her company is booking passengers on vessels sailing from Germany to Iceland and from the U.S. to South America in March. “More shipping lines will probably follow in spring or early summer," she said.

But the large shipping lines have again postponed their freighter voyages for the year, Mr. Jamieson said.

A spokesperson for France-based CMA CGM SA, one of the largest shipping companies to take passengers, said the suspension of its Voyages en Cargo division would continue until further notice.

Mr. Walsh, the author, said his biggest worry in getting back on a freighter isn’t necessarily a Covid-19 outbreak but the potential for getting trapped on a ship out at sea.

Congestion at ports has left cargo ships waiting in open water for weeks at a time. Many seafarers have been left aboard vessels far beyond their contracted work periods because of the backups or because some countries won’t let them leave the ships to allow for crew changes.

“Our biggest concern is passengers being stuck on ships for an extended period of time due to constant and never-ending changes in rules and regulations by various countries," said Mr. Jamieson, the New Zealand agent.

Still, Mr. Hulselmans, the Belgian cargo passenger, hopes to make his third trip via freighter, this time from Antwerp to the north of Norway, on a ship due to sail in April.

The experience of such trips can’t be easily replaced, he said. “You learn to be happy with fewer things: You can live without the radio. You can live without music or the internet or chatting or Instagram," Mr. Hulselmans said. “It’s possible, and not as bad as people think."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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