TORONTO — When news broke earlier this month that Canada would at long last be dropping its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for travellers, a collective cheer could be heard across the entire travel industry. But one segment of Canada’s travel population was noticeably left out in the cold – cruisers.
The relaxed measures, which were first announced on June 14 and came into effect on June 20, apply only to domestic travellers on planes and trains, as well as for outbound international travel. The rules for cruise travel, including vaccination for all passengers and crew, remain in place, on ships in Canadian waters and Canadian ports. But why?
The decision, said Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra, was based on “the unique nature of cruise ship travel, including the fact that passengers are in close contact with each other for extended periods of time.” But industry critics argue that the same can be said for airplanes, trains and in public spaces at hotels and resorts.
It’s widely regarded that the cruise industry has taken the brunt of the blame for COVID-19s spread among travellers throughout the pandemic, ever since outbreaks first occurred on two Princess Cruises ships in February and March 2020, prompting the CDC to issue a sweeping No Sail Order that prevented cruise lines from operating in U.S. waters. Canada followed soon after with its own cruise ship ban, which remained in place until Nov. 1, 2021. The CDC’s ban was eventually replaced in October 2020 with a Framework for Conditional Sailing Order (CSO), which outlined an extensive list of health and safety requirements for cruise lines, including conducting test cruises. This CSO eventually expired on Jan. 15, 2022, less than a month before the CDC announced its COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships, a voluntary tier-level system that classifies ships based on the vaccination statuses of passengers and crew. Cruise lines that opt out of the program will have their ships listed as “Gray,” meaning that they have not been reviewed or verified by the CDC.
With so many checks and balances in place for cruising, not to mention CLIA’s voluntary suspension of cruises very early on in the pandemic and the wide-ranging safety protocols that cruise lines themselves have implemented throughout the cruise journey for both passengers and crew, travel industry experts are left wondering: haven’t cruise lines proven themselves enough?
“We’ve taken the stance from the very beginning of the shutdown that cruise vacations offer the highest degree of health and safety protocols in the industry. But yet for some reason, cruise lines are treated differently than any other form of travel,” says Caroline Hay, President of Cruise CEO. “It’s not fair when you have this segment of the industry that is held to a higher standard than their land-based counterparts, but it’s the reality that we live in today.”
When asked whether she’s at all surprised by Canada’s decision to maintain the vaccination mandate for cruising, Hay says putting cruise lines under a microscope isn’t something new.
“I’ve never been to a resort where the CDC comes in unannounced and does a thorough inspection of all the facilities, but that has always been the reality of the cruise lines,” she says.
“The health and safety protocols have indeed proven themselves, and as the months roll on, we’re seeing minor adjustments to the required or suggested procedures outlined for ships. As each change is made, the cruise lines adapt and make it work for their guests and crew onboard,” adds Hay. “Are there cases onboard? Absolutely, but no more than what other destinations or vacation options are seeing.”
Despite the fact that vaccination mandates and requirements like pre-departure COVID-19 testing remain in place for cruising, cruise bookings are on an upward trajectory. Hay says Cruise CEO and sister company Trevello are seeing positive growth, with last month even reaching 2019 numbers. Group bookings are up, river cruising is also rebounding, and more world cruises and longer sailings have been booked over the past year than ever before, thanks in large part to in-market promotions and early booking incentives. All this, she says, are leading up to a banner year for cruise sales in 2023.
“We don’t feel that the vaccine mandate is a huge barrier to clients booking, with 82.8% of the Canadian population already fully vaccinated against COVID-19,” says Hay. “There was certainly some confusion at the onset of ships coming back into service last year with the mixed vaccinations and changing protocols for ports of calls around the world, but from the Canadian standpoint, we’re not seeing this as a limiting issue any longer. Our cruise partners have adapted well and communicate changes accordingly, which allows cruise sellers to keep on top of any changes.”
Travel agents also agree, with several telling Travelweek that cruise bookings have not been affected as of yet by ongoing vaccination mandates.
“I don’t think this will have a negative impact on cruising as most people still remember the issues on cruise ships in March 2020, so there’s comfort in knowing everyone is vaccinated,” says Valerie Murphy, a travel advisor based in Waterloo, ON.
Noting that her cruise bookings are “going very well and steadily increasing for next year,” Murphy adds: “I understand the reasoning for the vaccine requirement on cruise ships and most clients I’ve dealt with also agree, that they like knowing everyone onboard is vaccinated.”
Lola Vassiliadis, Owner/Manager of Cruise Holidays in Oakville, ON, also says that cruise bookings are up and that she hasn’t had any negative feedback from clients about vaccination mandates.
“I’m not at all surprised that the mandate remains in place for cruises and I really don’t have a problem with it,” she says. “I have been on three cruises in the past seven months and found it comforting to know that everyone else on the ship was vaccinated.”
Whether clients are in favour of vaccination mandates or not, Hay says it’s up to travel advisors to ask questions, listen to their needs and cater to their preferences.
“Some people would only choose to cruise because of the vaccination mandates, while others would avoid it altogether because of the mandate,” says Hay. “As ambassadors of the travel industry, it’s our job to mitigate the concerns of clients. The advisor’s role is to disseminate the information and present a vacation option that best suits their needs.”