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When Can We Cruise Again — and Will It Be Safe?

Passengers will find lots of changes aboard in the coronavirus era

a docked cruise ship

George Mdivanian/EyeEm/Getty Images

En español | Many types of travel have collapsed during the coronavirus pandemic, but no sector has been hit harder than cruise lines. The industry suffered a public relations calamity when the virus exploded last February on big ships like the Diamond Princess, spurring ports to turn others away out of fear that passengers might transmit it.

Between March 1 and July 10, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) discovered nearly 3,000 cases of COVID-19 or suspected COVID-19 and 34 deaths across 123 ships.

But at some point in 2021, cruising is poised to return. The CDC lifted its no-sail order in October, laying out new guidelines for big-ship cruising to resume operations in U.S. waters. The new Framework for Conditional Sailing Order applies to ships carrying at least 250 people, including crew, and requires cruise lines to demonstrate their infection control measures as well as run simulated voyages without paying passengers. (Cruise lines have been swamped with volunteers hoping to come aboard on those test cruises.)

As a consequence, the big lines have pushed their tentative restart dates into the spring; Royal Caribbean says it won’t sail until May. Norwegian Cruise Line has canceled all sailings through March 31.

The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which represents 95 percent of the industry, said its members will return “when the time is right, and that timing will be based on a number of factors, including, most importantly, input from scientists and medical experts.”

The companies are booking cruises departing later in the year. For instance, you can book a three-day voyage to the Bahamas with Norwegian Cruise Line that departs Miami on July 30, starting at $1,054.33 for a couple, including taxes and fees. Note, though, that due to COVID-19, the State Department has a Reconsider Travel advisory for the Bahamas — and the country is requiring visitors to provide evidence of a negative COVID-19 test and apply for a Bahamas health travel visa. It’s an example of how passengers and cruise lines will need to stay up on different countries’ COVID-19-related requirements, depending on their ports of call.

Here are just a few ways cruising — when it comes back — will be different during the pandemic (and maybe beyond).

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Shorter cruises, shipboard testing and social distancing

Under the new rules, cruises are capped at seven days. The CDC will require ships to provide rapid COVID-19 tests of passengers and crew on the days of embarkation and disembarkation.

Future travelers can also expect temperature screenings on embarkation and socially distanced seating everywhere — from dining rooms to pool decks. Holland America has said it will convert buffet restaurants to serviced ones.

“[Cruise ship] travelers like that there’s a certain ease of travel and a lively party atmosphere,” says Jeff Gurtman, managing director of the Coyle Hospitality Group, which has consulted with many cruise lines, including Carnival and Princess. “Cruise lines will have to deal with how to ensure safe distancing” while providing that feeling of fun.

CDC Recommendations for Travelers

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend avoiding “travel on cruise ships, including river cruises, worldwide, because the risk of COVID-19 on cruise ships is very high.” It adds that avoiding cruises is “especially important” for people with an increased risk of severe illness — risk that increases with age.

If you do cruise, says the agency, “get tested 3-5 days after travel AND stay home for 7 days after travel” even if you test negative. If you don’t get tested, it recommends staying home for 14 days after your return.

CLIA member cruise lines have also agreed on a series of health protocols, including mask wearing when social distancing is impossible, having cabins set aside for quarantines and permitting shore excursions only with operators that adhere to the ship’s public health protocols.  

There are likely to be fewer interactions between passengers and crew, and reservations required for group activities, to limit the number of participants, says Virginia Sheridan, spokeswoman for Seatrade Cruise Global, the international cruise industry’s largest professional conference.

Possible vaccine requirements

It’s still unclear whether cruise ships can require passengers to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination before boarding. “Lawyers are looking at it as we speak,” Norwegian Cruise Lines Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio told Travel Weekly. “It will certainly be a requirement for the crew.”

A big factor will be whether countries the cruise lines visit require travelers to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination, says Michelle Fee, CEO and founder of Cruise Planners, a travel agency network. “If they want to stop in certain ports of call, some of those countries might require it.”

Better ventilation

CLIA’s new health protocols call for “air management and ventilation strategies to increase fresh air onboard,” though the association stops short of mandating enhanced filtration and other technologies, recommending them “where feasible.”

Some are promising improved air filtration. Norwegian Cruise Line reports on its site that as part of its Sail Safe initiative, it’s installing “medical-grade air filters, H13 HEPA, that remove 99.95 percent of airborne pathogens across our entire fleet to ensure the air you breathe is clean.”

Holland America Line is adding HEPA filters to medical centers and dedicated isolation rooms.

Simplified itineraries

Complicating the attempts to relaunch is the fact that some itineraries include stops at ports in different countries with different (and evolving) health requirements. Rules in the Caribbean can be particularly complex. If a ship stops at several different islands, as was common in pre-COVID-19 days, its passengers will need to comply with a patchwork of rules.

And Europe, Canada and other parts of the world are still not allowing American visitors.

Itineraries may change as a result. “There may be fewer ports of call, cruises to nowhere or cruises that focus on one country,” Sheridan says.

Future travelers can also expect temperature screenings on embarkation, reduced passenger numbers, socially distanced seating everywhere from dining rooms to pool decks, and no self-service buffets.

A move toward small-ship cruising

Small cruise lines capable of carrying fewer than 250 people, including passengers and crew, are excluded from the CDC protocols on cruising and are permitted to sail in the U.S. Some smaller lines have announced their return to sailing, including American Cruise Lines, which operates boats with capacities between 100 and 190 passengers on American rivers and plans to begin sailing with a few trips in March at reduced capacity (it has a new ship, American Jazz, ready to show off on the Mississippi).

Some travelers may find small ships less risky; fewer people means a lower likelihood of having a case of COVID-19 on board, and, Sheridan points out, smaller ships are able to visit smaller, less crowded ports. But even small ships have had problems with coronavirus infections. Hurtigruten, the Norwegian expedition line, restarted operations in July but had to dock the MS Roald Amundsen when 36 crew members and several passengers tested positive for COVID-19.

Planning way ahead — with flexibility

Given the surge of infections globally and shifting regulations, most cruise lines are selling future itineraries with flexible cancellation policies that allow travelers to roll their investment forward to a future cruise if they decide to cancel. And now space is getting tight for some popular itineraries because so many people who had planned to sail in 2020 have already rebooked for 2021 and beyond, says June Kleier, a travel adviser based in Scottsdale, Arizona. She adds that many received 125 percent credit on their future sailings and so they have been upgrading to nicer cabins.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on September 1, 2020. It's been updated to reflect new developments, including the CDC’s changes to its rules for cruise lines.

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