TORONTO — Cruising has at long last returned, with a growing number of cruise lines celebrating their highly anticipated resumption from both non-U.S. and U.S. ports in recent weeks. All have implemented new health and safety protocols in the midst of COVID-19, many have gone so far as to require COVID-19 vaccination for all guests and crew. But without a universal vaccination mandate in place, and with children under 12 still not eligible for a vaccine, both fully vaccinated and unvaccinated guests can find themselves sailing on the same ship at the same time, calling into question what the best way forward should be for cruise lines in order to keep all those onboard safe, healthy and happy with their cruise experience.
For those who are vaccinated, cruising will look and feel similar to how it did before Covid, with access to all facilities and onboard amenities. But for those who are not vaccinated, either by personal choice or not, or who have received mixed doses of COVID-19 vaccines that are not recognized by the CDC, they may face costly testing requirements, mandatory travel insurance, off-limit areas onboard and restrictions while on shore.
Royal Caribbean made headlines earlier this summer when it announced sailings with unvaccinated guests out of Florida, where earlier in May Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a controversial ‘vaccine passport ban’ that prohibits cruise lines from asking passengers for proof of vaccination. Falling just shy of requiring guests to be vaccinated, Royal Caribbean instead said that guests are “strongly recommended to set sail fully vaccinated, if they are eligible.” If they don’t, they will be required to undergo additional COVID-19 testing at their own expense before and during their cruise and provide proof of a valid insurance policy. They will also be prohibited from the casino and My Time Dining, and sit in designated areas in the Main Dining Room, bars and lounges, among other restrictions.
It’s not a perfect system by any means, with some travellers and cruise experts expressing concerns over logistics and possible class distinction onboard. But for cruise lines sailing during these unprecedented times, it’s a system born out of necessity.
Carnival Cruise Line’s Vance Gulliksen tells Travelweek that even though the company is operating only vaccinated cruises, it has a process in place to provide a small number of exemptions for unvaccinated guests, as defined by the CDC, including children under 12. These guests must apply for an exemption prior to their cruise. Carnival considers a guest to be fully vaccinated 14 days after completing a vaccine therapy approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the World Health Organization (WHO). As per CDC guidelines, Carnival is also not recognizing guests with a combination of AstraZeneca and one dose of Pfizer or Moderna as fully vaccinated.
“Generally speaking, vaccinated and unvaccinated guests are together onboard although unvaccinated guests must adhere to a number of onboard protocols involving additional testing, travel insurance and other procedures,” he says, adding that more details can be found on Carnival’s ‘Have Fun. Be Safe.’ web page at carnival.com. “There is no independent sightseeing in ports of call for unvaccinated guests, who may only debark if booked on a Carnival-sponsored bubble tour. Unvaccinated youth and teenagers will also not be permitted to participate in supervised youth programs.”
When asked whether Carnival has received any backlash from unvaccinated guests who may not be able to enjoy the full breadth of services and amenities during their cruise, Gulliksen says that thus far, the response from these guests has been outstanding.
“We have consistently communicated with our guests and travel advisor partners to let them know what to expect during their cruise. This ongoing dialogue has been very well received by guests as they are happy to be sailing for the first time in many months,” he says.
Though Carnival may be experiencing little push-back from unvaccinated and mixed-dose guests, industry experts are still calling for a more streamlined approach to avoid confusion among all guest categories. While CLIA, the world’s largest cruise industry trade association, refers to vaccines as a “game changer,” it does not currently have a policy related to vaccines for its member cruise lines. It is, however, exploring a “workable approach for how to consider vaccinations, once widely available, as part of robust protocols.”
Vanessa Lee, President of Cruise Strategies Ltd., tells Travelweek that having both vaccinated and unvaccinated guests onboard is a “no-win,” situation and that it will be difficult for cruise lines to manage.
“There may be conflict with guests cruising together who fall into both categories, and those unvaccinated may become unwell and need to return home. And will the unvaccinated be prepared to mask up constantly? I’m not so sure,” she says. “I’d prefer that every cruise line insists on vaccinated guests and crew over the age of 12. I would not cruise on a brand that does not have such safety and health protocols in place.”
Lee, who earlier this month sailed with Silversea in the Greek Isles on the new Silver Moon, where everyone onboard was fully vaccinated and tested twice during the voyage, says that an industry-wide vaccination mandate will be difficult to implement, even though in her opinion most cruise lines are for it.
“The issue here is that some brands are European-based and have to manage European and North American guests who have different levels of vaccine acceptance and take-up,” she says. “Some came to the party early and others are still arriving at these decisions. Some have a lot of families in their guest mix so under-12s become an issue. And some have to cruise from Florida, which is a different kettle of fish due to the Governor’s stance. It is quite precarious right now and we will see cruise lines evolve in their thinking and mask guidance so they can better protect the health of their crew, their onshore providers and their guests.”
To read the full article, including insight from Ensemble Travel Group’s CEO, David Harris, and travel advisors, click here.