NEWS ANALYSIS: Norway’s famed but now shamed shipping- and cruiseline Hurtigruten announced the suspension of its leader of maritime operations on Friday. It’s the first high-ranking consequence of a Corona virus scandal at Hurtigruten that’s potentially damaging for the entire tourism industry, while also shaking public confidence in a company long viewed as part of the national heritage.
The suspension of the executive, named Bent Martini, comes just after confirmation that a total of 62 people who were on board Hurtigruten’s vessel MS Roald Amundsen have now tested positive for the Corona virus, Covid-19. They include 41 crew members and 21 passengers, none of whom were informed of the Corona outbreak before the passengers were allowed to disembark in Tromsø last Friday – and thus could potentially and unwittingly expose everyone they came in contact with to the virus.
Martini had been on the Amundsen’s week-long cruise from Tromsø to Svalbard himself, he confirmed to local newspaper Nordlys, adding that he’d been on holiday with his family. It remained unclear whether he was involved in what Nordlys called the “fatal decision” by Hurtigruten “to send passengers ashore even though there were sick crew members on board.”
Two more of Hurtigruten’s relatively low-paid foreign crew members on its so-called “expedition cruises” were admitted to hospital this week, while two others were released. All 158 crew members remain quarantined on the ship that’s now been tied up in Tromsø for the past seven days.
Hurtigruten has thus been forced to cancel all of the scheduled expedition cruises it had just resumed, also on its vessels MS Fridtjof Nansen and MS Spitsbergen. They were both docked as well after returning from their cruises this week, even though public health authorities’ orders to test everyone on board all turned up negative. State officials from Prime Minister Erna Solberg to her health minister Bent Høie and authorities at both the state and local levels have all expressed disappointment and even anger over how Hurtigruten failed to act when informed a week ago Wednesday that a Corona-positive passenger had been on board the Roald Amundsen, and when it had two sick crew members on board.
Oslo-based newspaper Aftenposten editorialized earlier this week that Hurtigruten’s conduct when confronted with Corona on board one its vessels has been “unforgiveable.” Not only did Hurtigruten violate an agreement with the state public health institute FHI to immediately inform passengers of the infection risk on board, state broadcaster NRK has reported how Hurtigruten communications officials asked local officials to withhold information about it.
CEO Daniel Skjeldam has claimed the company never tried to withhold information, as has Hurtigruten’s vice president for global communications, Rune Thomas Ege. “That’s not credible,” Aftenposten editorialized, while Health Minister Høie reacted by forbidding any passengers or crew on vessels with more than 100 on board from going ashore in Norway. Hurtigruten’s “terrible” means of handling its own Corona crisis, Aftenposten wrote, has thus created new problems for all cruise operators and their employees, along with myriad other land-based travel industry businesses.
What’s perhaps most disturbing for Norwegians from north to south is that such a scandal, now under police investigation, could occur at their “own” Hurtigruten, which has been sailing along the Norwegian coast for more than 100 years. It’s been a lifeline for many small communities that lack airports, rail and even roads, and has tied the lengthy country together while also offering spectacular scenery for tourists. Few forget the outpouring of national pride when NRK broadcast every minute of a Hurtigruten voyage from Bergen to Kirkenes back in June 2011. The ship was greeted by armadas of small boats, local residents standing along the shoreline waving flags and holding up signs, and even by Queen Sonja herself, who happened to be on the royal yacht Norge when Hurtigruten’s MS NordNorge arrived in Kirkenes.
The company and its operations have since changed considerably, because of deregulation of the coastal monopoly Hurtigruten once held and the potential profits of the cruise industry. Some blame the commercialization of the once-proud shipping line made cruise more important that transport of people and goods.
“I can understand that they’re preoccupied by profits,” Per-Helge Isaksen, boatswain on the MS Polarlys who represents Norwegian employees of Hurtigruten, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). “but that can’t come ahead of safety, neither for passengers nor the crew.” Isaksen said he’s been “shocked” by how “incredibly badly” such an otherwise well-regarded company tackled its Corona infection on board. He and many others think Hurtigruten officials were more concerned about the company’s reputation than public health.
Other labour union officials are unhappy that Hurtigruten opted to resume cruises (using much lower-paid foreign crews) instead of more of the Norwegian coastal voyages that are crewed by Norwegians, many of whom remain on furlough and are receiving state unemployment pay. Hurtigruten was also among those demanding, and receiving, state compensation during the Corona crisis, when it had to shut down all operations. Skjeldam and Hurtigruten were also a major force in lobbying the government to allow cruising to start up again last month.
‘We have made mistakes’
Now it’s all shut down. Skjeldam has apologized profusely, also on national TV, and admitted that “we haven’t followed up our foreign crew well enough. We have made mistakes.” At the same time, however, Hurtigruten has continued to tone down its public statements to the international market and the few English-language press releases that can be found on its US website stress all those on board expedition cruises who have not tested positive for Covid-19. The company opted to state on Thursday, for example, that 41 of 158 crew members had tested positive, “while 117 have tested negative.” Another crew member tested positive on Friday. Hurtigruten also stressed that there “has not been a single positive test” among its 171 “guests” on the Fridtjof Nansen, although three had “chosen not” to be tested.
“We are of course very glad that everyone has tested negative,” stated “global communications” spokesman Ege. “We have not had any reason to suspect infection, but take all precautions. We are in close dialogue with the Norwegian and German authorities (the Nansen was returning to Hamburg) and follow all recommendations from them.”
Ege conceded that “we have failed” in forwarding “information regarding recommendations and agreements with national health authorities … to the right people at the right time, ” but claimed “we never intentionally tried to hide or hold back information.” He added that questions continued to go unanswered this week because of “a lack of clear and accurate information internally” that has resulted in “weak communication.” Ege stated that Hurtigruten would now “assist the police and other Norwegian authorities, who will conduct their own examinations of the matter.”
Hurtigruten officials did not follow the Norwegian public health institute’s recommendations last week, but the company’s board of directors has stated they still have confidence in CEO Skjeldam. “Hurtigruten is in a demanding situation,” said board leader Trygve Hegnar, a cruise investor and media owner, in a prepared statement. “The most important thing now is to take care of the crew, employees and guests, get to the bottom of what happened and, over time, reestablish confidence in the company. The board has full confidence in Daniel Skjeldam and support him and the employees in this important work.”
Neither major investor TDR Capital, which owns 80.8 percent of Hurtigruten’s shares, nor Norwegian hotel owner and operator Petter Stordalen would comment.