The CDC is still banning U.S. cruises. Americans will sail this summer, thanks to a workaround.
By Hannah Sampson Washington Post March 25 2021
Don and Heidi Bucolo were on one of the last cruise ships to sail from the United States before the industry shut down more than a year ago. On Wednesday morning, they booked a voyage on one of the first to resume for Americans.
“We knew we would do it as soon as the first cruises came out,” said Don Bucolo, 40, who lives in the Boston area and runs the cruise review site EatSleepCruise.com with his wife.
The June 12 Bahamas sailing on Royal Caribbean International’s Adventure of the Seas this summer will not touch a U.S. port, however, since that is still banned by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Instead, lines including Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises and Crystal Cruises are going around the public health agency to countries that are more hospitable to cruising — and outside CDC’s jurisdiction. Instead of departing from the United States and heading to the Bahamas, Bermuda and Caribbean islands, ships are starting their trips in those destinations beginning in June and July and working with health authorities there.
“I anticipate you’ll hear further announcements and those announcements will put further pressure on the CDC to make a decision,” said John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Group, a travel agency network.
Other major cruise companies including Carnival, Norwegian and MSC have not said if they will take a similar approach to cruising in North America this summer. Most have canceled sailings from the United States through the end of May or June, while the industry is pressuring the CDC to let U.S. cruises start again by early July. The CDC, which is working on detailed instructions for cruise lines to return to service, has rebuffed that request.
“People want to travel, people want to cruise,” Lovell said. “The only thing they’re looking for is the government to say what you can do and what you can’t do — and we’re not getting that information.”
Vaccine requirements are in place for the operators that are restarting for U.S. passengers in the summer. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, both part of Royal Caribbean Group, will mandate vaccinations for adult guests and crew, with children under 18 required to test negative for the coronavirus. Crystal, an all-inclusive luxury line, will only allow vaccinated customers on board. Passengers also have to meet testing requirements of the countries they are visiting.
Crystal has said its onboard protocols will include social distancing, reduced capacity, masks where distancing isn’t possible and temperature checks. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity have not detailed what the experience will be like during cruises. Royal Caribbean International CEO Michael Bayley told The Washington Post that the company is waiting to see what public health officials are saying vaccinated people can do closer to June before announcing safety measures.
“This is a way to get people back on ships to show that they are safe, to show that they can have a great vacation again, to test out and try the new protocols,” said Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief of the cruise news and review site Cruise Critic.
Don Bucolo, who booked his June Bahamas cruise already, said he expects masks, social distancing, reduced capacity and reservations for restaurants to be among the restrictions.
“If they came out and said, ‘Actually, because of vaccinations, it’s going to be 100 percent capacity, no distancing, no masks,’ we would actually pause for a moment and say, ‘We don’t know if that’s the right move at this point,’” he said. “We think there need to be some safety measures in place.”
The CDC does not have jurisdiction over ships that operate outside of U.S. waters without intending to return to U.S. waters. The agency still recommends that all people avoid travel on cruise ships worldwide “because the chance of getting covid-19 on cruise ships is high, since the virus appears to spread more easily between people in close quarters aboard ships.”
CDC guidelines say even vaccinated people should delay travel and stay home to protect themselves and others from the coronavirus. People who are fully vaccinated should still avoid medium and large gatherings, wear a mask, and socially distance in public, the guidance said.
David Freedman, professor emeritus of infectious diseases at University of Alabama at Birmingham and an expert on travel medicine, said since testing isn’t perfect, passengers under 18 could potentially still board a ship when infected and transmit the virus.
“This is a mixed-public environment where you have unvaccinated people,” he said.
Freedman said he was also concerned about how people’s vaccination status would be verified.
“I don’t yet see how you can really be sure that all the people on the ships that say they are vaccinated are really vaccinated,” he said.
Early indications are that many cruise devotees are willing to take the risk — and go the extra mile to fly to the ships.
“Our agents are taking wait lists by hand,” Vicky Garcia, chief operating officer of travel agency franchise network Cruise Planners, said earlier this week before some of the trips opened up for sale. She already booked her own trip on Crystal and bought a plane ticket to St. Maarten to take a Celebrity Cruise.
“The air rates have gone through the roof,” she said.
Crystal Cruises said in a news release last week that it had its biggest day of bookings ever in the 24 hours after opening reservations for its Bahamas sailings.
Steven Christian, 29, an aspiring travel vlogger and new travel agent from Orlando, said he wants to sail this summer but isn’t sure he can afford it between the cost of a flight and the cruise.
“I’ve been looking and I’m interested,” said Christian, a university admissions representative. “The price is kind of up there for right now.” He pointed out that cruises in August and September were cheaper — though they also fall in the busier part of hurricane season.
McDaniel said members of the Cruise Critic community have reacted positively to the new sailings.
“I think that people are missing their ships and missing their cruise brands,” she said, regardless of where those ships will actually go. “Itinerary is secondary to just being back on board.”
Debbi Breslof, a Southwest Florida resident who works in the financial industry, doesn’t care that she has to fly to the Bahamas to get on the Crystal Serenity in July. And port calls aren’t very important to her for this trip either.
“I’m just looking forward to that sense of normal — which, to me, is a Crystal cruise to look forward to,” said Breslof, 60. “I know what I’m going to get, and it’s seven days away from my work-from-home.”
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Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.