TORONTO — While travel news in recent days has been dominated by Canada’s mass cancellation of winter sun flights, another significant development has come to light that may have long-lasting implications for cruisers: proof of vaccination.
It all started about two weeks ago when news broke that Britain-based Saga Cruises will be requiring all passengers to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 upon its anticipated return to cruising in May 2021. This means that passengers must have both vaccine doses at least 14 days before their departure.
In an official statement, Saga Holidays’ CEO Chris Simmonds said the decision was made to ensure the safety of its guests, who are typically 50 years old and older.
“Having spoken with our customers, we want to ensure we are providing the safest possible experience whilst they are on holiday with us,” he said. “We have made the decision not to allow a guest to travel with us if they choose not to receive the vaccine. The majority of our guests fall into the at-risk age bracket and our priority is their safety and wellbeing.”
Though Saga caters to cruisers across the pond, the news was closely watched here in North America as cruise lines continue to work towards resumption of operation. It’s also worth noting that Saga Cruises is a European Regional Cruise Line member of CLIA, which represents over 50 cruise lines, including Carnival, Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean, NCL, Princess, Silversea and more.
This begs the question: if Saga will be implementing proof of vaccination, will other CLIA member lines follow suit? And if they do, will it deter cruisers from booking, or actually encourage those who are particularly health- and safety-conscious to book?
Though not CLIA members, sister brands American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC), which sails America’s rivers, and small-ship cruising specialist Victory Cruise Lines have waded into the fray by announcing last week that they, too, will be implementing a vaccination mandate, effective July 1, 2021. All guests, crew members and non-shipboard employees across all seven vessels in their fleets will be required to receive both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and present proof of vaccination prior to boarding. If a guest is unable to receive both doses before their trip, they will be rebooked for a future sailing at no charge.
“Vaccination requirement for both our guests and crew is the most prudent next step to ensure that we are providing the safest cruising experience possible,” said John Waggoner, CEO and Founder of American Queen Steamboat Company. “Our new vaccination requirement, coupled with comprehensive health and safety protocols and risk-free booking policy, will give our loyal guests another added level of assurance to join us as we return to sailing.”
As the first cruise lines in the U.S. to require proof of vaccination, AQSC and Victory Cruise Lines have essentially paved the way for other North American lines to also mandate a coronavirus vaccine requirement. But will they follow? We asked CLIA, cruise lines and travel agents to weigh in on the issue:
The cruise industry, among the very first to be hit by the pandemic in early 2020, is certainly watching the global rollout of vaccines with a close eye. Calling them a “game changer,” Laziza Lambert, CLIA’s Strategic Communications Manager tells Travelweek that vaccines are “restoring confidence that the world will overcome COVID-19.” But this doesn’t mean that cruise lines will necessarily jump at the chance to implement a blanket-wide approach to vaccinations.
“It’s important to note that the rollout of vaccines across the world will take some considerable time and many uncertainties remain. For this reason, we continue to believe that a multi-layered approach is the right one to help mitigate risk. We will continue to monitor developments related to the vaccine as we move forward with a multi-layer approach that includes 100% testing, mask-wearing, physical distancing and other mitigation and response measures,” says Lambert.
When asked whether vaccinations would be required for at least crew members, who typically work on several ships within a fleet and thus can be considered to be at higher risk to transmit the virus, Lambert said the following:
“CLIA is working in coordination with the International Chamber of Shipping and other international industry associations, the World Health Organization, IMO and ILO to urge member states to recognize that seafarers (workers who operate both the marine and hotel functions of cruise ships) are key workers. Nearly 50 IMO Member States and one Associate Member have now designated seafarers as key workers.
“Key worker designation for seafarers is essential to exempt them from specific COVID-related travel restrictions. Importantly, it could also play a key role in granting them priority access for vaccination.”
With the pandemic being a highly fluid situation, it’s difficult for cruise lines to commit one way or another at this time with regards to vaccinations. As Derek Lloyd, VP, Agency Sales at NCL said last week during Travelweek’s recent ‘Future of Travel: A Brand New Year’ virtual conference, “what’s true today may not be true in two months, six months or 12 months.”
That said, Lloyd did say that NCL is currently exploring all options regarding vaccinations for both guests and crew.
“It’s absolutely our intention that all crew members will be vaccinated before boarding our vessels to begin duties, subject, of course, to availability,” he said. “We’re continuing to partner with authorities and the Healthy Sail Panel to look at all the options necessary to protect our guests, our crew and, of course, the communities that we visit too.”
In a statement sent to Travelweek, Carnival Corporation, which includes the brands Carnival Cruise Line, Costa, Cunard, Holland America Line, Seabourn and more, said that it is highly encouraged by the vaccines, calling them an “important tool in the toolbox to continue to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” not to mention with advancements in treatment therapies and enhanced and affordable testing. However, while the vaccines are an important breakthrough, the company has not made decisions on next steps at this point.
“At this stage, we are closely monitoring the situation with production and distribution of vaccines, and we will make a determination as things evolve,” reads the statement. “For now, it is a positive step to have vaccines and other tolls that will support enhanced safety and a gradual return to activities people enjoy, including travel.”
Proof of vaccination can go either one of two ways with travel advisors: it will either make it harder for them to sell cruises to clients or make it easier in the new normal. Of the advisors Travelweek reached out to, they all welcomed the possibility, saying their clients would be more than willing to be vaccinated in order to cruise.
“For the cruises going forward, I would expect that we will need to show proof of vaccination,” said Marilyn Stainer, Cruise and Travel Consultant at Independent Flight Centre in Burnaby, B.C. “My clients would welcome the idea of having proof of vaccinations as many of them are older and would feel more secure being on the ship.”
Stainer, whose business is made up of 90% cruises, has personally booked herself to sail on three cruises with her groups , two in October and another next March. “I will do anything that is required just to be able to cruise again,” she said. “My last cruise was on the Disney Wonder to Alaska in September 2019 so I can’t wait to get on a ship again!”
Marianne Vogel, CTC and owner of Just for You Travel & Consulting in Dundas, Ont., is also an avid cruiser who considers cruising the best type of holiday. As someone who’s passionate about the cruise industry, Vogel thinks requiring passengers to be vaccinated is a great idea and that “it would make people feel a little more secure.”
Another upside to proof of vaccination, added Vogel, is that it would “stop people from lying about their health just so they could go on a vacation,” something that she has personally seen in her community.
“A vaccination certificate, in my opinion, is the way to go, just like your passport. Certain destinations already require vaccinations anyway, so why not for cruising or any travel for that matter?” said Vogel.
Scott Penney, a Certified Travel Advisor with The Travel Agent Next Door in Dartmouth, N.S. also thinks proof of vaccination will be part of the new normal, “just as a passport is needed to travel.” The majority of his existing cruise clients have told him that they are comfortable with a vaccination requirement to cruise as they feel it would be for their own safety and peace of mind.
However, Penney added that whether proof of vaccination comes into play or not, there are clients who won’t be cruising for the foreseeable future.
“I have found that my clients who are not cruisers but who had some interest in trying it are more reluctant now to try cruising. My clients who were booked to cruise last year for the first time who had to cancel due to COVID told me they have no intention to consider cruising anytime soon – or ever. This is an unfortunate result of the pandemic,” said Penney.