March is officially the month for good cruise news as various companies announce a return to operations after a year-long shutdown.
The reboot, however, is happening on select islands in the Caribbean as cruise lines await further direction from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on resuming itineraries out of U.S. ports.
The CDC issued a “No-Sail Order” in March 2020 and then, in October, announced that it would take “a phased approach to resuming cruise ship passenger operations in U.S. waters.”
Since then, cruise lines have been working to meet the CDC’s Framework for Conditional Sailing Order, a 40-page document outlining sanitary, testing and quarantining requirements that must be met to resume service in the U.S.
Cruise companies have done the work, but here we are in March 2021, five months later, and the CDC is reportedly still in the early stages of its process while recommending “all people avoid travel on cruise ships.”
Still, backed by America’s aggressive vaccination strategy, 74 health and safety protocols developed by a “Healthy Sail Panel,” and pent-up demand, some cruise lines are confident they can launch a limited-capacity summer season in welcoming waters.
Crystal Cruises, on March 11, unveiled seven-night voyages that will sail from Nassau or Bimini in the Bahamas starting July 3 and all passengers must be fully vaccinated.
Royal Caribbean International’s Adventure of the Seas will launch a season starting June 12 in Nassau, Bahamas, with seven-night getaways to Cozumel, Mexico and a sampling of Bahamian ports.
Royal Caribbean sister line Celebrity Cruises will, too, resume cruising this June, except out of St. Maarten.
For Royal Caribbean cruises, vaccines will be required for crew and guests 18 years of age or older (younger passengers must show a negative COVID-19 PCR test result within 72 hours of embarkation).
This all, without a doubt, serves as a glimmer of hope for the travel industry – one of the hardest hit sectors to succumb to the economic strain of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And while the situation is different in restricted Canada, whose per capita vaccination rate still ranks low, these developments bring the industry “one step closer” to reintroducing cruising to North America, says consultant and writer Ming Tappin of Your Cruise Coach and PAX’s own resident cruise expert.
“It clearly is a tremendous feat as we still have not seen any sailings take place – not even the ‘test sailings’ that we were teased last November,” says Tappin.
By restarting cruises via foreign-port embarkation, cruise lines are “conducting their own ‘test’ sailings outside the direct jurisdiction of the CDC,” Tappin says, “but by no means are they circumventing any of the CDC’s orders.”
The biggest challenge facing cruise companies, says Tappin, isn’t the difficulty of implementing safety protocols and contingency plans.
It is the reality that, despite all efforts, “COVID-19 might still find its way onboard,” she says.
“We already know that testing isn’t 100 percent foolproof, and we saw what happened when SeaDream attempted to restart in the Caribbean,” Tappin says.
SeaDream Yacht Club, last November, cancelled its 2020 season following a COVID-19 outbreak on board one of its ships after attempting a sailing out of Barbados.
Despite having plans in place to contain an outbreak, if one occurs on board a ship in U.S. waters, the CDC will "immediately clamp down and possibly mandate an end" to all future sailings, Tappin says.
“This is an enormous risk for the cruise lines to take in terms of planning efforts, financial burden and negative publicity,” she says.
“Cruise lines remain in full compliance with all of the CDC’s rules and regulations, as if they are sailing from the United States, but by sailing from the Bahamas and St. Maarten, they can make cruising possible while continuing to collaborate with the CDC for a return to U.S. waters.”
Vaccines now part of the picture
The difference now, of course, is that passengers vaccinated against COVID-19 are part of the picture.
This is worth noting as America, last Friday (March 19), administered its 100 millionth vaccine dose since U.S. President Joe Biden took office, illustrating a rapid strategy that Canada can only dream of.
“These cruise lines feel confident enough to sail with their robust safety measures in place,” Tappin says, noting how Royal Caribbean Group has already seen successful sailings in Europe and Asia and “knows that their safety protocols are effective.”
“There will never come a day when 100 per cent of the population is risk-free – even with vaccination,” she says. “Just like the common cold, COVID-19 will never be entirely eliminated.”
“So, why not try a restart, now, if they are ready?”
The demand is there
Crystal opened reservations for its Bahamas schedule on March 18 and the company reported that within 24 hours it secured nearly 4,000 passengers – “the biggest opening single day in the company’s history,” Crystal said in a press release on Friday (March 19).
“There definitely is a pent-up demand,” Tappin says. “Royal Caribbean and Celebrity’s sailings will go on sale this week and will no doubt see similar activity.”
If those sailings are successful, “other cruise lines may follow suit,” Tappin believes.
“Successful sailings will also provide measurable proof to the CDC, and hopefully push open the door for a restart from American ports,” she says.
What does this mean for Canada?
Will Canadians rush to sign up for a cruise in the Caribbean? The cruise industry, generally speaking, doesn’t have the best relationship with Canada right now.
In addition to its stringent air and quarantine restrictions, Transport Canada has banned all large cruise ships from operating in Canadian waters until February 2022.
“I think Canadian travellers are more cautious overall and may wait it out a little longer,” Tappin says. “Both Royal and Celebrity are offering summer sailings up to August, so it may be too soon for some to make this commitment.”
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“The strict quarantine requirements upon return to Canada is a discouraging factor,” Tappin points out.
Crystal will be sailing up until October, which may be an option for some, depending on where Canada is at, Tappin suggests.
How agents can prepare
At the same time, there are ways Canadian travel agents can prepare for the cruise industry’s return, Tappin explains.
“These planned voyages will definitely generate inquiries from avid cruisers,” she says. “Although travel advisors will be overjoyed at the potential of sending clients on a cruise this summer, it is paramount that they fully understand the stringent requirements each cruise line has put in place.”
In addition to boarding requirements, destinations in the Caribbean, too, have their own entry rules, which must be reviewed closely, she says.
“Something else to keep in mind is that being vaccinated does not exempt travellers from further testing as mandated by the cruise line or port city,” Tappin says. “Additional measures, such as reduced capacity, social distancing and mask-wearing, will still be in place.”
There is also a “long list of additional terms and conditions” that guests must agree to, she says, noting how regulations are fluid and can change at any time.
Travel advisors must be able to clearly explain every detail to clients as the denial of entry or boarding can occur if guests do not comply or have not obtained the required documentation.
“Clear communication and mutual understanding between the travel advisor and client have never been more important,” Tappin says.
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