Vaccine rules were key to the return of cruising to the United States in the summer of 2021, under strict rules imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unvaccinated travelers needed a hard-to-get exemption to sail, if allowed, and everyone except young children had to present proof of a negative test.
The CDC scrapped its cruise covid-19 reporting program last month, prompting cruise lines to announce they would relax testing requirements for vaccinated passengers and – in most cases – allow large numbers of guests who have not been vaccinated, as long as they have shown proof of a negative test. The lines had dropped mask mandates months earlier. Vaccine rules still apply in destinations that need them, and some operators are dropping their rules more gradually than others.
Still, experts agree: cruising has been getting closer to normal since the industry shut down in March 2020. One of the first coronavirus outbreaks occurred on a Princess Cruises ship in Japan in February 2020; as ships attempted to return to port after the shutdown, many destinations turned them away. Some passengers who contracted the coronavirus died on board.
More cruise lines are dropping vaccine requirements
Cruise lines say the new relaxed rules will allow them to reach the segment of cruisers that were still banned as they rebuild their business.
Late last month, Royal Caribbean Group CEO Jason Liberty told The Washington Post in an interview that 70-80% of the company’s customer base had been vaccinated. In comparison, 67.3% of the US population is fully immunized, according to the CDC; 77.2% of people aged 18 and over received a full course of the vaccine.
Liberty said even some of those vaccinated travelers might have avoided the cruise because they wanted a family vacation and had members who were unwilling or unable to get vaccinated. Many of the cruise credits the company issued earlier in the pandemic are held by travelers who were waiting for the rules to change before leaving, he said.
Frank Del Rio, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, said on an earnings call last week that the company’s announcement of new protocols the day before “was an instant catalyst, resulting in one of our three best booking days of the year”.
When Carnival Cruise Line announced on Friday that unvaccinated travelers would no longer need to apply for exemptions on most sailings, the company said it wanted to make it easier for more travelers to board.
“Our ships have been sailing very full all summer, but there is still room for our loyal guests,” Carnival President Christine Duffy said in a statement. “And these guidelines will simplify the process and make cruising accessible to those who have not been able to adhere to the protocols we had to follow for much of the past 14 months.”
On Tuesday, the company said reservation activity on Monday – after the new rules were announced – was almost double the activity on the equivalent day in 2019.
“Mid-August is not typically a busy month for cruise bookings, but it is clear that pent-up demand for Carnival has not been met and guests are responding very favorably to our updated protocols,” Duffy said in a statement.
The CDC still recommends that every eligible cruise ship passenger be “up to date” with their coronavirus vaccines and tested before and after travel.
“In addition to the protection that COVID-19 vaccines offer individual travelers to prevent serious illness or death from COVID-19, having a high proportion of travelers on board up to date with COVID-19 vaccines reduces the likelihood that cruise ships’ medical centers will be overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases,” CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said in an email.
She said the agency has determined that cruise lines and companies have the information and tools they need to enable passengers to make decisions about how to navigate safely. The CDC made its cruise rules voluntary earlier this year and dropped warnings for cruise travel in March.
“While cruising poses some risk of COVID-19 transmission, travelers can make their own risk assessment when choosing to cruise, just as they do in other travel settings, depending on factors such as their health and vaccination status, and their personal risk tolerance,” Nordlund says.
CDC stops reporting coronavirus cases on cruise ships
Andrew Coggins, a clinical professor of management at Pace University who studies the cruise industry, said it would be wise for cruise lines to keep their level of vaccinated travelers high. But he said it would have been difficult for cruise lines to insist on the rules as the CDC relaxes its social distancing and quarantine requirements for people who have been exposed to the virus.
“It would be very difficult for them to justify that,” he said.
Hopefully, he said, serious outbreaks will not follow the new protocols. In December, the CDC warned that all travelers — even those who have been vaccinated — should avoid cruise travel during the omicron surge. The ships reported nearly 15,000 cases between Dec. 30 and Jan. 12, the agency said.
Jackie Friedman, president of host travel agency Nexion Travel Group – which supports independent travel agents – said “a few cancellations” had come from travelers who had booked trips pending tougher rules.
“I really think it’s skewed towards more people wanting to cruise than people wanting to cancel because of the policy change,” she said.
As is often the case when it comes to coronavirus, opinions on social media are diverse and passionate. Responses to Facebook announcements from representatives of Royal Caribbean International and Carnival Cruise Line ranged from celebration to disgust.
“To wrap up! We’re moving forward and moving forward! We need to start living in reality and stop discriminating against non-vaxxers,” one Facebook user wrote to Royal Caribbean International CEO Michael Bayley. Another said: ” Terrible idea, terrible timing.”
To Carnival brand ambassador John Heald, one woman wrote that she had found other ways to go on vacation. “To finish! Freedom to sail and not get the hang of it,” she said.
One user said she was “a bit spooked” by the changes, noting her next cruise was less than a month away.
“I will be more careful and mask more,” she wrote. “Very unhappy to open up to more unvaccinated.”
Cruises break records despite the covid on board: “Life goes on”
On Cruise Critic, a news and review site, members are “generally supportive of relaxing protocols,” editor Aaron Saunders said in an email. But they are not impatient to see all the precautions disappear.
“A recent survey by Cruise Critic showed that most readers are in favor of keeping at least some protocols in place, particularly around testing and quarantine requirements,” he said. “We believe cruise lines are taking a similar position – rather than ripping the band-aid off in one fell swoop, companies are changing protocols in a more gradual way, with longer sailings of 16 nights. [or] more still subject to comprehensive vaccination and screening regimes.
Genung, the travel agency’s CEO, said it is expected that high levels of cruise passengers will still be vaccinated even without a requirement.
“Quite frankly, the feedback we’ve gotten from most of our customers is that they’re happy to see cruising back to normal,” he said. “That’s the word we hear all the time.”