Thousands of people have traveled around the world on freighters. Until the pandemic hits

Airplanes, cruise ships, trains, cars, buses… And freighters. If you want to cross the Atlantic or the Pacific and you are not quite convinced to fly in the skies above 10,000 meters or you are looking for an option that reduces your carbon footprint, you have cargo within easy reach. Yes, the same ones that cross oceans to the top of containers and cargo. It’s not a popular option, it’s not designed for large groups or cheap – the thing of paying while giving the callus with the rest of the crew is no longer taken -; but it is one of the alternatives for moving.

Or was, at least. As has happened in many other areas, the crisis has wreaked havoc on the sector and led the companies responsible for managing it to an extreme situation.

What are they and how do they work exactly?. Freighter itineraries are far from the most popular option among travellers, but they offer an alternative for those who prefer not to fly or are looking for a different experience. It is estimated that, more or less, only 1% of ships in the sector accept passengers beyond their crews. And the supply of those who do is very small, with only a handful of users per boat. The agency Freighter Travel with Sea Travel specifies for example that some have a capacity “up to 12 passengers”.

In terms of request, depending on the data it processes the wall street journalThroughout 2019, the last year without a “COVID effect”, less than 4,000 people paid for a freight ticket. The data is light years ahead of the 29.7 million passengers who traveled in the same period on conventional liners, aboard cruise ships chartered for tourists.

Neither low cost nor for all travelers. The experience is special, but it’s definitely not a low-cost alternative. According to some travelers who have already tried it and the specialized site Seaplus, the price averages around 100 euros per day per passenger, an amount that includes expenses such as food, accommodation and laundry service. ; but to which may be added the payment of royalties. Other sources widen the range slightly, placing it between 45 and 130.

The passenger can manage the trip through specialized agencies—Frachtsciff Reisen Hamburg or The Cruise People provide data, for example—and must take into account certain rules, such as the fact that the baggage load generally varies from 45 at 120 kilos, the language on board the ships is English and the permitted ages range from 14 to 79 years old. Another important fact is that the forecasts with departure and arrival dates can be changed. On the ship, the meal schedules of the crew are respected, which does not mean – emphasizes Seaplus – that travelers can work as a plus.

The shadow of the pandemic. COVID-19 has shaken many sectors, but few have felt the effects as much as passenger transport. Air links have been suspended, rail and road services have been abolished and cruise ships have been cancelled. The reason, simple: confinement, the “flat” in demand and, above all, restrictions on mobility. Even when supply began to thaw, operators were forced to maintain security measures that affected their capacity and seat availability, such as capacity limitation.

The very small cargo travel company was no exception. At the start of the pandemic, in March 2020, most operators in charge of managing ships vetoed the passage of paying passengers. The goal? Reduce the risk of contagion and protect your crews. Two years later, however, the shadow of COVID is still present.

While in the rest of the passenger transport sector, the situation seems to be gradually normalizing — in 2021, for example, Aena closed with a 57.7% increase in passenger traffic compared to the previous year, a notable increase, although still at values ​​well below those of 2019—, the activity of boat trips continues to be marked by COVID-19. As detailed in the log The Wall Street Journal, the still-in-force bans have all but knocked out activity, to “virtually non-existent” levels. The payment vetoes that continue to be applied force specialized agents to (de)wait for the regulatory scenario to change.

An effect that cruise ships have not escaped either. Travel on cargo ships is of course not the only ones to have suffered the effect of the health crisis in the oceans. After years of outbidding and a sustained increase in demand, Statista shows that the flow of cruise passengers also deflated in 2020, weighed down by restrictions and paralysis. If in 2019 29.7 million passengers were reached, the following year the figure fell to 5.8.

At the beginning of March 2020, before confinement was decreed, in Spain there were already stopover cancellations due to COVID-19. In the port of Barcelona, ​​one of the largest in Europe, a 77% drop in the number of cruise passengers was recorded at the end of the same month. As a safety measure against contagion, the Spanish government ended up banning the docking of cruise ships that month, a measure that was not lifted until June 2021.

Contrary to what is happening with the passenger transport activity on commercial vessels, the activity of cruise ships seems to be gradually moving towards a positive trajectory. In November, the International Association of Cruise Lines in Spain (CLIA) expressed confidence that it could fully recover in 2022. Moreover, according to its estimates, between 75 and 80% of ships would already be operational before the end of the year. Throughout 2022, they were confident of climbing 100%.

The other enemy: port congestion. Bans derived from COVID-19 are not the only ones complicating the reactivation of passenger travel on freighters. The sector faces another challenge, and not the least: port congestion, which has sometimes left ships waiting at sea longer than expected and forced them to extend their voyages.

In October, for example, several container ships bound for the UK ended up being redirected to European docks because they could not unload their goods due to traffic jams caused by the pandemic and Brexit, with a severe shortage of trucks in the country.

This is not an isolated case. Just a few days ago, the United States announced measures to reduce congestion problems at ports. To these handicaps is added the very complexity of the bureaucracy. “Our biggest concern is that passengers will be stranded on ships for an extended period of time due to the constant and never-ending changes in rules and regulations in various countries,” an agent acknowledged in January. The Wall Street Journal.

Pictures | Johan Taljaard (Unsplash) and Joe Ross (Flickr)

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