Coronavirus on cruise ships in Australia: What are the risks?

Being trapped aboard a large ship with infected passengers might be every cruise passenger's nightmare, but what are the chances of that happening on an Australian cruise?

Health experts have sought to reassure passengers who may be considering postponing or cancelling travel on cruise ships due to fears about the spread of coronavirus.

The disease has so far claimed 490 lives and infected more than 24,000 people, with the vast majority of cases in China.

But on Wednesday 10 people tested positive to coronavirus aboard a cruise ship off the coast of Japan, including two of the 200 Australians on board.

In response, the Japanese government ordered the Diamond Princess to remain offshore for 14 days, effectively quarantining the remaining 3700 people on board.

Australian health experts say the chances of a similar situation happening here remain remote.

Retired health professor John Mackenzie has been researching infectious diseases since 1965 and said people with cruise bookings should not be alarmed.

"There's no need to panic at all," Professor Mackenzie said.

"Being on a ship certainly increases the opportunity for disease to spread. [But] when it comes to this virus it depends who's on board and where [the ship] is going.

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"If you're thinking of going on a cruise there's very little risk, providing it's not going anywhere near China.

"If I had a cruise lined up I'd probably go ahead and do it."

Australian National University infectious diseases specialist Sanjaya Senanayake agrees passengers cruising locally should be fine.

"If it was a regular Pacific cruise leaving from Australia, I would have thought the risk would be low," Dr Senanayake said.

"I certainly wouldn't postpone local travel, and that's not what the government or the World Health Organisation are advising either."

The Cruise Line Industry Association's most recent annual report showed there were 1.35 million Australians who went on a cruise in 2018. About 5 per cent, or 72,000 people, cruised in Asia.

Curtin University marketing lecturer Mingming Cheng said he expects the coronavirus outbreak will cause this number to drop "significantly" until the disease is contained.

"For the whole cruise industry in Australia, I think this [virus] is not significant. The most popular areas for Australians are in the Pacific and Australia and New Zealand. I don't think it will be a huge impact - only for the Asian market."

Meanwhile, 14,000 people from Asia took a cruise in the Australasian region in 2018, double the previous year.

Dr Cheng said the Chinese ban on tour groups, combined with the Australian government's ban on visitors from China, would result in a sharp drop in Chinese tourism until both bans are lifted.

Wary of further outbreaks, global cruise companies have implemented strict sanctions on travelling passengers.

Royal Caribbean has indefinitely banned anyone who has travelled to, from or through mainland China or Hong Kong in the past 15 days. The company has also implemented mandatory medical screenings and cancelled all cruises through China and Hong Kong until the end of February.

Carnival Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Lines did not respond in time for publication, but the industry peak body said all of its members, including Carnival and Norwegian, had also banned passengers who had travelled from or through China in the previous 14 days before boarding.

While you might be unlikely to contract coronavirus on board a cruise ship, outbreaks of norovirus (or gastro) are more common. The most important tip for staying healthy is to keep your hands clean. Avoid putting anything in your mouth without washing your hands first, and use the provided hand sanitiser frequently.

"Washing your hands is the most effective thing you could do," Professor Mackenzie said.

See also: Can masks actually protect you from coronavirus?

See also: 'Not unforseeable': Your travel insurance may not cover coronavirus

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