Thousands of cruise passengers are trapped in Hong Kong in a scene reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic.
The snap announcement of a two-week ban on flights from eight countries has trapped 2500 travellers at anchor on Royal Caribbean ship Spectrum of the Seas as they await testing.
The two-week ban on passenger flights from Australia, Canada, France, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Britain and the United States will take effect Sunday and continue until 21 January.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam also announced restaurant dining will be forbidden after 6pm for two weeks starting Friday. Game arcades, bars and beauty salons must also close during that period.
"We have to contain the pandemic to ensure that there will not be a major outbreak in the community again," Lam said at a news conference, adding that the city is "on the verge" of another surge.
The measures came as new omicron clusters have emerged over the past week, many linked to several Cathay Pacific crew members who broke isolation rules and dined at restaurants and bars in the city before testing positive.
Hong Kong has reported 114 omicron variant cases as of Tuesday, with most being imported. On Tuesday, it reported its first untraceable case in nearly three months, which authorities said was likely caused by the omicron variant.
Hong Kong officials have moved swiftly to block the spread of the variant, locking down residential buildings where people have tested positive and mass-testing thousands of people.
The Spectrum of the Seas has been held since Wednesday following an omicron cluster linked to nine passengers and the ship was ordered to turn back to harbour.
The circular "cruise to nowhere" returned to port a day early, where it remained.
One passenger, Claudy Wong, told Associated Press that the cruise line had tried its best to follow pandemic regulations.
"The pandemic has gone on for so long, actually passengers like us who board the cruise are already prepared for such situations to happen," Wong said.
A statement from the cruise line said guests who were on the affected ship would receive a 25% refund on their cruise fare. The ship's next sailing on Thursday was also cancelled because the crew must undergo testing, and those guests will receive a full refund.
The city has reported a total of 12,690 confirmed coronavirus infections as of Tuesday, including 213 deaths.
Cruise restart stalled
There have been a series of positive tests aboard ocean cruise ships over the new year period. While most ships require proof of full vaccination for staff and guests, MSC Cruises reported 45 positive cases aboard the MSC Grandiosa in the Mediterranean this week.
On 30 December the US's Centre for Disease Control and Prevention advised that cruise travel should be avoided regardless of vaccine status, raising their warning to its highest level.
The CDC's website cited "increases in cases onboard cruise ships since identification of the Omicron variant" as the reason.
The cruise industry responded with dismay, feeling singled out by the health groups and travel insurers.
The international Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) issued a statement on their dismay.
"The decision by the CDC to raise the travel level for cruise is particularly perplexing considering that cases identified on cruise ships consistently make up a very slim minority of the total population onboard - far fewer than on land - and the majority of those cases are asymptomatic or mild in nature, posing little to no burden on medical resources onboard or onshore," said the international industry body last week.
- Associated Press with additional reporting