Business is booming.

Cargo Cruising Industry May Be Too Small to Survive the Pandemic

  • Sailing aboard a cargo ship has been a niche but popular form of “slow travel.”
  • But the industry crashed as shipping firms took precautions against COVID-19.
  • Specialty travel agencies report growing waitlists of people eager to cruise on a freighter.

Cruise lines are continuing to experience a steady post-COVID-19 recovery, with some companies reporting fully booked cruises and others boasting “off the charts” onboard spending.

But while monthslong cruises have performed well throughout 2021, one of the slowest forms of cruising has continued to struggle — sailing aboard a freighter vessel.

Booking a room aboard a commercial freight vessel for a multi-week voyage may not be most people’s ideal way to travel, but for those like Hamish Jamieson, founder of New Zealand-based Freighter Travel, there’s nothing else quite like it.

“It’s got a unique smell of pitch, sea salt, food, and stale bodies. It gets in your blood,” he told Insider. “It’s a wee bit like going to your favorite cabin in the middle of autumn.”

A freighter ship at sea.

Freighter cruises.

Slowtravel – Arne Gudde

Crossing oceans by freighter isn’t just Jamieson’s passion, it’s his business, too. Jamieson is one of a handful of travel agents around the world who specialize in booking passage aboard freighters, a specialty proving increasingly fraught as the business struggles. 

Before the pandemic, cargo ships carried nearly 4,000 private passengers per year in officers’ cabins, offering a spartan but spacious alternative to conventional cruise liners. But that came to an abrupt end in January 2020 when early reports of the novel coronavirus started emerging.

“Shipping companies don’t want to take the risk that they get an infection onboard among the crew,” Arne Gudde, founder of Berlin-based Slowtravel, told Insider. “If that happens, the whole ship may have to be in quarantine.”

As the pandemic enters its third year and national health authorities continue to offer shifting guidance, it’s not entirely clear how this much-beloved niche mode of travel will recover. With bookings unlikely to return until 2023, the few experts who can navigate the international red tape are at risk of going out of business without alternative income streams. 

A docked freighter ship.

Freighter cruises.

Slowtravel – Arne Gudde

Jamieson said the only trip he has available is a “hell of a voyage” from Rotterdam to Reykjavik, “but who wants to go to Reykjavik this time of year?”

But for the major carriers, the revenue lost from not carrying passengers is hardly a drop in the bucket.

“The entire revenue of freighter travel cruising for the whole world is probably less than €5 million a year, and most shipping companies are making €30 million a day,” Jameison said.

For mega firms like Maersk, the risk associated with carrying passengers is simply not worth the relatively meager profit. 

International maritime law only allows 12 passengers on a ship without a medical doctor, though most freighters carry half that. And at a daily rate of around $100 to $150 per passenger, millions of dollars worth of cargo could potentially be delayed due to an arrangement that nets the shipping companies only a few thousand dollars on a three-week voyage.

A view of cargo while on a freighter cruise ship.

A freighter cruise.

Slowtravel – Arne Gudde

Even so, Gudde and Jamieson told Insider their waitlists are long – and getting longer – as more travelers seek a slower-paced way to see the world.   

“The market is getting smaller, there’s no doubt about that. But demand is growing,” Jamieson said.

For Gudde, who says his waitlist is now in the hundreds, maybe thousands, the demand exceeds the number of spots that are expected to open up next year.

The exit of major cargo carriers from the cruising space is giving a boost to alternatives that offer a similarly slow, meditative form of travel, such as with smaller regional shipping firms, sailboat owners, train services, and even hiking trails, Gudde said.

So until bookings resume, would-be cargo cruisers will have to content themselves with practicing the two most important skills of freighter travel: having patience and being flexible.

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