By Hannah Sampson Washington Post - March 16 2021
The coronavirus pandemic grounded cruise ships. Even as vaccinations roll out, their future remains uncertain in the U.S.
In the year since the cruise industry and public-health officials shut down sailings, operators have extended their cancellations again and again. And again. And again.
Cruises outside the United States have restarted, paused and started anew. And still the question remains: When will cruising resume in the United States?
“Cruise lines are eagerly awaiting an update from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] to outline next steps for a return to service,” Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief of the cruise news site Cruise Critic, said in an email. “The latest positive news around vaccine distribution in the United States could be a step in the right direction, though the true return to significant cruising from the United States is dependent on when the CDC deems it appropriate.”
Big ships are already sailing outside the United States in Singapore and parts of Europe, and more than 360,000 passengers have sailed since last summer, according to Bari Golin-Blaugrund, spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Association.
Royal Caribbean announced cruises from Israel starting in May for local residents; all crew and passengers 16 and older must be fully vaccinated. And luxury line Crystal Cruises plans to sail one of its ships around the Bahamas starting in July with vaccinated passengers.
But after several high-profile outbreaks on ships, no one is expecting a return to pre-pandemic-style cruising anytime soon. Where they have started again, cruise lines are requiring negative coronavirus tests, masks and social distancing on board, and less-than-full ships.
Andrew Coggins, a professor at Pace University who teaches cruise industry management, said it remains to be seen if those guidelines will be “compatible with a business model that requires 100-plus-percent occupancy.”
Still, cruise companies say customers are booking for later this year and next. Coggins said he believes travelers will eventually get back on board to the numbers the industry reached before the coronavirus pandemic.
“Much will depend on how smoothly the initial recovery goes,” he said in an email. “Some may not come back, but most will.”
A return date for sailing from U.S. ports is still not known.
Most U.S.-based cruise lines have canceled their sailings through at least the end of May. Norwegian Cruise Line said on Tuesday that it is extending its suspension through June. But when will they actually sail?
“The timing of a return to sailing remains the million-dollar question,” McDaniel said in an email. Operators must meet a series of requirements and milestones as mandated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One catch: They still don’t know all those requirements.
The CDC says its focus remains on protecting crew and working with lines on initial requirements of testing crew and developing onboard lab capacity.
“Future orders and technical instructions will address additional activities to help cruise lines prepare for and return to passenger operations in a manner that mitigates covid-19 risk,” the agency said. Instructions for agreements with ports and local health authorities, the next phase, are expected to be out soon.
But even after more information is available, cruise lines still have to go through a lengthy process of operating simulated test voyages and getting approval to take passengers on sailings.
When they start sailing again, cruise companies have said they will start slowly.
“We plan to start sailing with only a few ships as part of a staggered approach,” said Roger Frizzell, spokesman for industry giant Carnival Corp. “By the end of the year, we hope to have our global fleet sailing.”
One sure bet: Sailings from Alaska will almost certainly not return until 2022. Canada — where foreign-flagged ships must stop during Alaskan sailings — said large cruise ships are not allowed to visit until February.
Small ships are the exception.
There’s almost always a loophole. The CDC order applies to ships that can carry 250 or more passengers and crew members. That means some small U.S.-based operators are allowed to sail. Several small-ship lines have said they plan to cruise in Alaska this summer, though their numbers will amount to the tiniest fraction of a normal year.
American Cruise Lines launched its first cruise of the year on Saturday, a coastal trip from Northeast Florida to Charleston, S.C. The ship, Independence, can hold 100 passengers. Another sailing, this one on a 190-passenger riverboat, is scheduled for Sunday along the lower Mississippi River. All of the line’s initial cruises are capped at 75 percent capacity, and passengers must test negative to board.
American Queen Steamboat Company will start paid cruises at the end of the month after setting sail with charter cruises on the Mississippi this week, according to Cruise Critic.
Vaccinations will be required by at least some cruise lines.
The industry’s biggest operators have not said whether they will require passengers to be vaccinated, though some, including Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, say they expect crew will be inoculated. But a handful of smaller players have already announced vaccine requirements for passengers.
On Tuesday, new cruise line Virgin Voyages became the latest to say it would require vaccinations for passengers and crew. CEO Tom McAlpin made the announcement on “Good Morning America.”
“We think that’s the right thing to do to create that safe environment,” he said.
Small luxury line Crystal Cruises has also said it will require vaccinations, joining Saga Cruises in the United Kingdom. American Queen Steamboat Company and sister line Victory Cruise Lines will require vaccinations starting July 1.
Coggins said he expects more operators to add the requirement, “as another layer of precaution in addition to a negative test.”
Cruise lines have already said they will require testing, onboard distancing and mask-wearing onboard in addition to other safety measures. A CDC spokeswoman told The Washington Post in January that vaccines were not a solution by themselves.
“Vaccination, along with other preventive measures, including testing before and after travel, wearing a mask, social distancing, frequent handwashing, and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, will be another effective strategy available for reducing covid-19 transmission associated with travel, including cruising,” spokeswoman Caitlin Shockey said in an email.
Your favorite ships may be gone forever.
Cruise operators have been looking for ways to reduce expenses and make money while business dried up. In some cases, that means they are getting rid of older, smaller, less-efficient vessels.
Royal Caribbean sold two of its oldest ships, Majesty of the Seas and Empress of the Seas, last year.
And Carnival Corp., which operates cruise lines including Carnival, Princess and Holland America, has said it is getting rid of 19 ships, or 13 percent of its global fleet. The vessels are either being sold to other operators or scrapped.
Cruise die-hards are still booking.
Carnival Corp. said in January that advance bookings for 2022 are strong and are “within the historical range” for the second half of this year.
“The forward booking trends we have consistently experienced throughout this period — in spite of the extended pause in our operations, in spite of our minimal advertising effort and even in spite of the abundance of negative global news — affirm the underlying demand that will facilitate our staggered resumption and support the long-term growth of our company,” CEO Arnold Donald said. “And we have not only seen tremendous support for our brands from our loyal guests, it is also very encouraging to see demand from new guests.”
Royal Caribbean Group’s chief financial officer, Jason Liberty, said in February that the company had seen a 30 percent increase in new bookings since the beginning of the year when compared to the last two months of 2020.
“The volumes that we see on a demand standpoint are, in our perspective, impressive,” he said.
McDaniel said members of Cruise Critic have been enthusiastic about cruising again.
“So many of our members are avid cruisers who cruise multiple times each year,” she said in an email. “It’s a true passion of theirs — and many have had cruises already booked and rebooked several times throughout the past year. Needless to say, they are eager to return to sea when they’re safely able.”
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.