TORONTO — Imagine this: a passenger arrives at a port to embark on their long-awaited cruise but is denied boarding because they don’t have proof of vaccination for COVID-19, claiming they were unaware of the requirement. Who’s to blame? The passenger, the cruise line, or the travel agent?
The question is a valid one considering the growing number of cruise lines that will be requiring proof of vaccination upon their resumption of operations. Britain-based Saga Cruises was the first out of the gate to announce the requirement in January, followed by sister U.S. brands American Queen Steamboat Company and Victory Cruise Lines last month. Most recently, and perhaps most significantly, is Crystal, the first large-ship cruise line to make vaccination a requirement for guests, a move that could usher in a wave of other cruise lines to follow suit.
While proof of vaccination is being regarded by many in the cruise industry, including travel agents, as a welcome requirement to rebuild traveller confidence and help safely resume global cruising, it can be assumed, like with any newly introduced travel protocol, that there will be some challenges ahead for all those involved. Recent reports of travellers finding loopholes to avoid Canada’s quarantine hotels and even falsifying negative COVID-19 test results indicate mounting frustrations over ongoing travel restrictions. Could something similar happen in the cruise industry if proof of vaccination becomes more widespread, with cruisers attempting to sidestep the requirement? Whether they do so deliberately or innocently, who will be blamed if they’re denied boarding?
When reached for comment, CLIA’s Laziza Lambert, Strategic Communications Manager, tells Travelweek that the organization is currently discussing the potential pitfalls proof of vaccination will have for the cruise industry.
Travelweek also reached out to travel agents to weigh in on the issue. Marianne Vogel, CTC and owner of Just for You Travel & Consulting in Dundas, Ontario, believes that travel agents will be the likely scapegoat should their clients claim they were unaware of the vaccination requirement prior to departure. Saying that “we always seem to get the brunt of the blame,” Vogel tells Travelweek that the only way for agents to protect themselves in this scenario is to request a copy of the client’s vaccination certificate in advance to send to the cruise line.
“I always ask for a copy of my client’s passport so that I have it on file, in case they lose it or something happens and so I can check that all data is correct for the booking,” says Vogel. “It would be prudent for agents and cruise lines to ask for proof of vaccination too at the time of booking, or at least before departure, to deal with this.”
Giving as much information as possible to clients will be imperative, adds Vogel, who makes sure to provide up-to-date hardcopies of airport procedures and country requirements along with tickets.
“I know everyone loves electronic tickets these days but my lawyer always says, ‘those who have the most paperwork wins.’ Electronic stuff can be doctored, your phone or iPad can be lost, stolen or not work in destination – same goes with the vaccination certificate. Take a paper copy along with your passport until it can be added to your passport electronically in the future, like with some visas,” she says.
Carlton Montaut, Chief Executive Officer of Centre Holidays in Mississauga, Ontario agrees that travel agents are responsible for advising their clients of all travel requirements. “However, if the client booked directly with the cruise line it would be the responsibility of the cruise line to advise the passenger of the vaccination requirement,” he says. “If they fail to do so then the blame is definitely on the cruise line. If a travel agent was involved, the same process would apply.”
With travel requirements changing almost daily and without any prior warning, Montaut relies heavily on Centre Holidays’ Pre-Vacation checklist for all clients “to ensure that nothing is overlooked.” Even more, all clients must sign a waiver that states Centre Holidays cannot be held responsible for any requirement set forth by tour operators or cruise lines that has not been conveyed to the company.
To cover its bases on the supplier side, American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC), whose vaccination mandate goes into effect on July 1, 2021, says that any guest who booked a sailing after July 1 prior to the mandate was contacted, along with AQSC’s travel agent partners, about the new policy. All new bookings are informed of the vaccine mandate by reservations as well as by the travel agent.
AQSC saw an immediate response to its new mandate, telling Travelweek that bookings are already up: “We have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from guests. January and February 2021 bookings are over 35% higher than November and December 2020 bookings.”
With these numbers, providing proof could very well be the new normal in cruising. Vanessa Lee, President of Cruise Strategies Ltd, thinks other cruise lines will soon follow AQSC’s lead, with many already considering the legal ramifications of requiring guests to be vaccinated prior to sailing. Of course, this also means more responsibility for travel agents who are tasked with relaying all necessary information to their clients.
“As in any other booking scenario, travel agents will ensure that clients know all the requirements to sail, whether it be with a vaccine, a visa or other restrictions,” says Lee. But, she adds, “each guest is responsible for ensuring they have the right documentation, including proof of vaccine, should that be relevant.”
When asked whether proof of vaccination will ultimately help or hurt the cruise industry, Lee is optimistic.
“At this juncture, we are all wildly still consulting our crystal balls but overall, I feel anything that offers prospective guests a safer environment or assuages anxiety is a positive,” she says. “Personally, I would prefer to sail with other guests who have been vaccinated.”