Big cruise is back, even as Florida and Texas turn cruising vaccination requirements into a political football. With industry giants eager to start making money again, it'll be a tough road ahead, from rebuilding consumer confidence to sailing to where vaccines are lagging. Is this restart premature?
The recovery of cruises is showing signs of life, 15 months into the Covid pandemic — the longest pause yet on North American cruising.
Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Millenium on June 5 sailed out of St. Maarten as the first ship to resume cruising in the region, while its Celebrity Edge ship will be the first to enjoy a revenue sail out of a U.S. port on June 26 for a seven-night Caribbean cruise from Fort Lauderdale. Carnival Corporation is scheduled for its first simulated sail out of Galveston on July 3 and there’s a second July departure planned out of Miami.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has also approved eight simulated voyages thus far, with more being added as the restart evolves. Test sails are for ships that will be accepting unvaccinated passengers on board with a series of yet to be finalized testing protocols.
“There’s a lot of excitement, but the feeling of excitement is also accompanied with the feeling of, we have a long way to go on the road to recovery; this is just the beginning,” said Bari Golin-Blaugrund, vice president of strategic communications and public affairs at Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).
Golin-Blaugrund said that the rationale for the restart was not based on economic impact but based on science, and following low incidence restarts in Europe.
In reality, the temptation from the world’s three largest cruise lines to recoup losses will be huge in spite of an ongoing global pandemic in other parts of the world — namely, the industry’s most profitable region, the Caribbean.
But what has changed and what hasn’t?
It’s that lack of certainty around the cruising experience itself — including divergent protocols from the cruise lines — and what it will look like that experts say may keep consumers at bay for now as the industry resumes.
“The challenge is that there is not yet a lot of consistency and that information changes quickly,” said Drew Landgrebe, travel advisor at Charting Memories Travel, based in Jacksonville, Florida.
“Since no one really knows what is happening in the short run, I am not actively trying to get people to book near term; I am however trying to get people on the books for next year so that they can lock in space and prices.”
This is all against the backdrop of a staggering financial hit from the pandemic. Covid’s impact on the cruise industry resulted in a loss of $23 billion in wages, just over a half million jobs, and $77 billion in global economic activity. The North American market represents the bulk of the cruise ship industry’s revenue, according to the Cruise Lines Industry Association.
For Jim Walker, who runs Cruise Law News and is a Florida-based maritime attorney, restarting cruising in countries where the pandemic is alive, plus the lack of information on what happens to consumers if there is an outbreak at sea are concerning factors.
The Celebrity Millenium has already reported two Covid positive passengers on board.
“Most of the Caribbean isn’t vaccinated — what’s the thought process of going down to Cozumel, or going into Mexico, or even sailing out to the Bahamas, which has an extremely low vaccination rate?” Walker said.
To boot, St. Maarten was already experiencing a Covid spike prior to the ports reopening.
For now, the cruise industry sits at the beginning of a long and bumpy road to recouping its financial losses as the pandemic continues to reshape the future of cruising.
“I think the larger part is going to be how the cruise product is transformed in order to reduce the risk, so I think private islands are going to become much more highly utilized,” said Ross Klein, a veteran cruise industry expert and professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland.
“I think for the passengers it’s gonna be a while before they or we understand the way with the cruise product is going to be different.”
Shifting Consumer Trust
More so than any other sector of travel, consumer confidence hangs in the balance for cruises as they restart.
“One of the things that is a big focus of ours, as an industry and as a community in general, is going to be building the confidence that cruising can once again be an amazing way to experience the world,” said CLIA’s Golin-Blaugrund, adding that the challenge was with people who were less familiar with the industry and may have some lingering perspectives that it’s not safe.
The availability of vaccines was considered a game changer, opening the path to a faster recovery — that is, until Florida Governor Ron De Santis’ political interests disrupted the united front that cruise lines had presented since last year.
The approach on protocols and pre-sail vaccine requirements splintered quickly among the three major cruise companies, further denting public perception.
Golin-Blaugrund said what’s really positive is that cruisers are mostly pro-vaccine. A May survey from Cruise Critic revealed that 80 percent of respondents said they would prefer to sail on a ship imposing a vaccine requirement, with 89 percent indicating safety as a reason while 69 percent said it was to have as traditional a cruise experience as possible.
The results explain the backlash that Royal Caribbean faced when it reworded its public promise of fully vaccinated sails to stating the company was only now “strongly recommending” vaccination after Florida’s governor threatened hefty fines.
The state squabbles are a mere distraction, however, and cruise lines as well as CLIA seem little concerned about them given the CDC’s federal mandate and jurisdiction.
“We are evaluating the legislation recently signed into law in Texas regarding vaccine information,” Carnival Corporation said in an email statement. “The law provides exceptions for when a business is implementing COVID protocols in accordance with federal law which is consistent with our plans to comply with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s guidelines.”
Economic impact will push the cruise lines catering primarily to families to risk having small amounts of unvaccinated crowds on board — i.e. meeting but not exceeding CDC recommended thresholds.
“The CDC’s guidelines for operating a highly vaccinated cruise provide the ability to accommodate a small number of unvaccinated guests (children under 12 who cannot be vaccinated and exemptions as required by federal law) on restricted voyages, based on the total number of vaccinated guests on board,” Carnival said in an email statement.
“We plan to accommodate a small number of exemptions. Such guests are being asked to put their names on our list (online submissions only) for follow-up communication. There will be testing, mask requirements and other restrictions for unvaccinated guests who are granted an exemption.”
Celebrity Cruises said it was continuing to work on finalizing its health and safety measures for cruises departing from Florida “in collaboration with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, local and state authorities, as well as the destinations we will visit.”
But will vaccinated cruisers want to risk booking a seven day trip with unvaccinated passengers or will they simply wait it out?
“I believe that there is too much risk to get on a full ship without the vaccination and very limited ability to enforce different safety protocols for different passengers,” travel advisor Landgrebe said. “It would be virtually impossible to let those who are vaccinated to go maskless while requiring masks for those without.”
A Changed and Potentially Costlier Cruise Experience
As cruises restart, varying public health protocols in destinations on cruise itineraries will necessarily limit the kinds of activities that are available.
“When people learn that they’re going to go to say the Virgin Islands and they can’t go off the ship and have to pay for a shore excursion and have to do it with the cruise, that makes it much less attractive as a vacation choice for a lot of people,” Klein said.
Mitigating the risks of cruising as it returns in the current pandemic landscape will also be costlier for cruises and part of that cost is likely to fall on the consumer.
Royal Caribbean Cruises CEO Richard Fain has indicated that the unvaccinated might also face a costlier cruise experience in light of additional testing and protocols that will be required.
Another unknown cost: potential trip interruptions as a result of onboard outbreaks, and medical expenses should a passenger’s health deteriorate.
“Clients are also asking about what would happen if an outbreak should happen; they want to know if the ship would return to port, if people will be confined to their cabins, if everyone would be affected or just those who tested,” said Landgrebe.
CLIA’s Golin-Blaugrund said its members have been working on a Member Policy for Mitigation of Covid-19 since last year to address potential outbreak situations at sea. The agreement itself is still under review, and the summary which CLIA provided Skift includes an outline of main parameters that must be in place.
These range from onboard care and augmented medical staffing to disembarkation scenario agreements with port partners. Cost of onboard care is not mentioned and CLIA was unsure of any customer coverage responsibilities.
Landgrebe said he recommends to clients who want to sail soon to have trip protection coverage and back-up plans.
“They need to remain flexible and realize that their next cruise may feel different than their last one.”
While more costs shift to the consumer, vaccinated or not, the economic imbalance for destinations is also likely to grow as ships benefit from more limited cruise itineraries that keeps everyone on board and focuses in great part on private islands.
A Bumpy and Uncertain Return
The cruise industry is the last sector to attempt a tourism restart. It’s already a bumpy return amid daily announcements from cruise lines on sailing protocols, plus the latest news reports that Carnival Corporation CEO Arnold Donald held discussions about the risk of Covid spread in early 2020 but did not cancel cruises.
“This notion that they’re going to come back and resume cruising and they’re going to be humbler and they’re going to be more environmentally sensitive and deferential to port communities — it’s what happened down in Key West and what we’re seeing over Venice now — I don’t see any kinder or gentler type of cruise industry emerging from this,” Walker said.
For Landgrebe, and undoubtedly a large share of cruisers, it all comes down to safety.
“I don’t believe that vaccination requirements will be a permanent feature but should be in place to get the industry running again in a safe manner — even a minor outbreak could result in a major setback for the industry.”
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Photo credit: Royal Caribbean is leading the resumption of ocean cruising in the U.S., with a first sail scheduled late June out of Fort Lauderdale and its new Odyssey of the Seas ship in July. Royal Caribbean Cruises / Courtesy of Royal Caribbean