Editor’s Note: This story was updated to reflect new announcements of cruise relaunches.
Passengers are ready to get back on board with cruising. To that end, CDC released a letter promising a resumption of sailing by mid-summer. The pledge comes on the heels of strong response from industry leaders and lawmakers to the CDC’s update on the Conditional Sail Order in early April, which modified safety considerations but had not indicated when cruise ships would be allowed to set sail.
Among those calling for a lift in restrictions was Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which represents 95 percent of global ocean-going cruise capacity.
U.S. Travel Association president and CEO Roger Dow seconded the request, saying, “Restrictions have taken a disproportionately heavy toll on the travel industry and our millions of workers, and the rule preventing cruise operations is uniquely specific. We join the calls to identify the way toward lifting the Conditional Sail Order and allowing the phased resumption of cruise operations as quickly as possible.”
Florida lawmakers introduced the Careful Resumption Under Improved Safety Enhancements (CRUISE) Act, which laid out intentions to overrule CDC restrictions and allow cruising to resume from the Sunshine State’s ports as of July 4. The bill was blocked in the state senate in late April but is being seen as a clear inducement for the CDC’s action.
The CDC letter calls for simulated voyages with reduced crew, updates the requirements for port agreements to provide medical and housing contingency plans in case of outbreak, and presents an opportunity to bypass simulated voyages if 98 percent of crew and 95 percent of passengers are fully vaccinated.
In their initial request, CLIA emphasized the safety of cruise travel based on voyages taken from non-U.S. ports during the U.S. ban on sailing: “Over the past eight months, a highly controlled resumption of cruising has continued in Europe, Asia and the South Pacific—with nearly 400,000 passengers sailing to date in more than 10 major cruise markets.”
According to the trade association, the very small fraction of reported Covid cases (fewer than 50, based on public reports) is dramatically lower than the rate on land or in any other transportation mode.
Despite assumptions travelers might make that cruising is less safe than air travel due to duration aboard the vessel, some travel experts say group experiences may be easier to safeguard on a cruise ship with strict protocols than on other forms of public transport. So long as pre-boarding measures are stringent, a limited, known number of persons aboard means variables are more controlled, the experts point out. A private charter, especially, offers the benefit of no interaction between unrelated parties, the opportunity for crew to oversee safety precautions continuously, and a heightened ability to keep track of those in contact—unlike in an airport with high traffic and no way to limit interaction.
Guests can also choose voyages that highlight outdoor adventures and excursions, giving more opportunity to stay in the fresh air. And a private cabin with outdoor balcony access is demonstrably better at whisking away contaminants than the advanced filtration system on a Boeing 747.
Most Cruise Lines Will Require Vaccination
Even in the absence of blanket CDC requirements for vaccination aboard ships, many cruise lines have gotten out ahead of the game. Virgin Voyages, Crystal Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Seven Seas Cruises, Windstar and Lindblad are among the rising number who will require vaccinations for passengers.
Cruise line representatives cited the vaccination requirement as part of a multi-pronged approach to keeping crew and passengers safe, in addition to implementing CDC regulations, requiring negative testing before boarding and adhering to reduced capacity and social distancing guidelines.
With the CDC’s commitment to swiftly handle applications to set sail by summer, cruise lines have begun announcing dates. Celebrity Cruises announced that the first ship to sail from U.S. waters in more than a year will be a Celebrity Edge cruise departing from Fort Lauderdale on June 26 for a seven-night tour of the Caribbean. The company will resume its voyages to the Galapagos Islands beginning July 4 with its ship Celebrity Flora, with fully vaccinated crew and passengers.
Parent company Royal Caribbean Group also operates Seabourn, which shared plans to make its first departure July 3 from the port of Piraeus, Greece. The Athens port is a popular restart location, as the country announced mid-April it would begin reopening to citizens from five countries (including the U.S.) who are fully vaccinated or submit a negative Covid-19 test. Seattle-based cruise company Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Lines and Silversea all have plans to resume voyages from Piraeus over the summer months, as well. All mentioned cruise lines will require full vaccination for crew and passengers.
High Demand for the High Seas
The collective push by the travel industry that the CDC release the sails is no wonder, as prebooking for cruise travel is booming for late 2021 and beyond.
According to a March article in The Washington Post, Royal Caribbean Group has seen a 30 percent increase in new bookings in the first quarter of 2021, compared to the last two months of 2020.
Luxury line Silversea Cruises had the most successful presale in the company’s history for its 2023 world cruise, themed South Side Story—All the World’s a Stage. The 139-day voyage completely sold out by the day of its general opening. It will span five continents, ferrying travelers to 66 destinations in 34 countries.
Josh Leibowitz, president of luxury cruise line Seabourn, said in a Forbes interview in January that the company was seeing strong interest in late 2021 and 2022 bookings across the board, noting that pent-up demand was evident.
Cruise Compete, a service that connects cruisers to customized quotes via travel agents, forecasted a strong return to cruise travel based on the hassle-free nature of the travel mode—cruises offer streamlined travel to unique destinations with inherently all-inclusive packages. CEO Bob Levinstein shared encouraging statistics with Smart Meetings in an email, noting that advanced bookings for 2022 are level with 2019 by number of cabins pre-booked. Interestingly, he noted, revenue for 2022 reservations is 24 percent higher, possibly reflecting that cruisers are booking more expensive vacations.
Budget Friendly Group Travel
For an all-inclusive, team-building experience or a welcome-back event that aims to ameliorate pandemic frazzle, a chartered ship has advantages, among them “high space-to-guest ratios that create a comfortable travel experience, free of long lines or crowds in public spaces,” as noted on Seabourn’s website.
During the post-Covid era of austere meeting, cruises can be a more affordable way to plan an incentive trip that appeals to all interests. Multiple ports of call take travelers to several destinations in one go—a bit of a bang-for-your-buck mentality.
Another bonus is that accommodation, meeting space, AV needs, food and beverage are all included in a quote, reducing planning time while still providing a fully curated luxury experience. Booking an ocean-bound affair can also satisfy the increasing demand for ecotourism, depending on the voyage planned. Seabourn is the official cruise partner of UNESCO World Heritage, an alliance created to help promote sustainable tourism at World Heritage sites around the world.
In addition to paying careful attention to the safety protocols adopted by specific cruise companies, prospective passengers are also advised by environmental organizations to research their sustainability records. Especially on some smaller ships, progress has been marked, and most major cruise lines are taking steps to become more environmentally friendly. View the 2020 Cruise Report Card by Friends of the Earth here.
Beyond Government Guidelines
City Cruises, which is operated by Hornblower Group, recently reopened its Chicago vessels, as the CDC order only applies to ships that can carry 250 passengers or more. The brand has developed its own SafeCruise by City Cruises procedures, which include mandatory daily crew member health screening, wearing of appropriate PPE, and revised boarding and ticketing procedures for touchless experiences and proper distancing, among others.