Half a dozen cruise ships have been stranded for up to nine months off Cyprus, looming large over a fishing village on the holiday island hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
Cyprus was quick to impose a stringent lockdown last March, shutting its air and sea ports as Covid-19 began to overwhelm hospitals elsewhere in Europe.
The Mediterranean island, whose economy relies heavily on tourism and shipping, opened its waters two months later to cruise liners for refuelling and anchorage.
Carnival, one of the world’s largest cruise operators, took up the offer, and its luxury ships have been anchored off the village of Moni since May, with the cruise industry immobilised by the pandemic.
Lying around two kilometres (just over a mile) offshore, six cruise ships figure prominently and have become an attraction for snap-happy Cypriots.
“These ships are stuck here because there is nowhere to go; there is no business for the time being,” said Marios Chrysanthou, captain of the nearby Saint Rafael marina, which is used to resupply and rotate the quarantined crews.
“I never saw anything like this,” he told AFP.
“During our winter time they (normally) go to Australia or America, but this virus situation is everywhere now.”
Some of the ships have come and gone, but others have been anchored off Cyprus for nine months.
“Our ships are off the coast of Cyprus awaiting return to service,” said Negin Kamali, spokeswoman for Princess Cruises.
“We are continuing to assess the possibilities for future sailings,” she told AFP in an email.
Among the stranded ships is the Bermuda-flagged Enchanted Princess, a royal-class cruise ship built in 2020 with 19 decks and measuring almost 330 metres (1,082 feet) in length.
Skeleton crews maintain the vessels, including the Bahamas-flagged Seabourn Quest, which according to the Marine Traffic website arrived from Gibraltar on May 8.
Carnival said its Princess line of cruise ships had paused sailing in the US and Europe until mid-May, and Seabourn had halted some of its services until November.
The ships are kept in condition to ensure they can be ready for use as soon as needed when tourism rebounds from the pandemic.
“Crew are on board to keep vital ship operations running during the pause period,” said Kamali.
Carnival said it was reviewing the various vaccines against Covid before deciding what protocols its passengers should follow once cruises set sail again.
“The new vaccines represent an important breakthrough for people throughout the world, including the travel, hospitality, and cruise industries,” said Kamali.
The pandemic has seen Cyprus go from record tourist arrivals in 2019 to one of its worst ever years, with visitor numbers plunging 84 percent.
Arrivals slumped from almost four million in 2019 to less than 650,000 in 2020, the statistical service said.
Tourism usually contributes around 15 percent to gross domestic product, generating 2.68 billion euros ($3.26 billion) in 2019. The shipping sector accounts for seven percent.
The island is now in its second lockdown, with more than 240 Covid deaths and 35,000 cases.
The Cypriot government is reportedly earning 120,000 euros ($146,000) a month in fees for hosting the six vessels.