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Big-Ship Cruising Set to Return by Mid-Summer

The CDC has loosened rules — and cruise fans are ready to go

Cruise ships at the Port of Miami

Jeffrey Isaac Greenberg 17+ / Alamy Stock Photo

En español | Cruising could return to U.S. waters in a matter of weeks. In a letter sent to the cruise industry on April 28, the CDC clarified the latest phase of its Conditional Sail Order (CSO) for big ships with 250 or more passengers and said it was committed to cruising's resumption in American waters by midsummer. Before this clarification, the CSO had put cruising on hold until November.

Some easing of restrictions make this earlier date more probable. While the CDC is still requiring cruise companies to conduct test sailings with nonpaying passengers to prove the effectiveness of their new infection-control protocols for COVID-19, the agency will now review their applications to run tests within five days, rather than the 60 days originally estimated. Plus, companies can now bypass these simulated voyages if they attest that 98 percent of the crew and 95 percent of passengers will be vaccinated on their cruises.

Two of the CDC's clarifications to its CSO impact travelers directly:

  • Fully vaccinated passengers will only be required to take a rapid antigen test when embarking; those not vaccinated must take a polymerase chain-reaction (PCR) lab test in advance.
  • Passengers exposed to or who contract COVID on a cruise won't necessarily have to quarantine on the ship. They may be allowed to drive home if they live within driving distance; if they don't live nearby, they may be allowed to go to a hotel.

"All signs point to this being a very positive development for American travelers and those Americans who want a home port,” says Richard Marnell, an executive vice president with Viking Cruises.

"This is huge news that the travel industry has been waiting 14 months to hear. We're all breathing a sigh of relief,” agrees Michelle Fee, founder and CEO of Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative.

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Pushback against ‘burdensome’ CDC requirements

The CDC's encouraging clarifications came after the agency faced heavy criticism from politicians and the cruise industry for the latest phase of its CSO, which it issued on April 2. That update recommended that crew, passengers and port workers be vaccinated; added additional requirements; and set no timeline for test cruises. In response, the state of Florida filed a lawsuit, joined by the state of Washington, asking the court to find the CSO unlawful. (Both states are home to big-cruise port cities.) And the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) quickly labeled the update “unduly burdensome and largely unworkable.”

Frustrated cruise company executives cried foul, too, pointing to the apparent efficacy of the vaccines now available, stressing all the safety protocols they've put in place, and noting that airlines and hotels have not been similarly restricted. In an interview with CBS News, Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of the Royal Caribbean Group (RCG), said that its brands already sailing in other parts of the world have carried more that 100,000 guests. “Of that, we've only had 10 [COVID] cases,” he said. “We would like to be treated in a very similar way to the airlines and other forms of transportation."

New safety protocols

Cruise lines have turned to infection-disease specialists and other medical experts to help develop their new protocols. RCI and Norwegian Cruise Line collaborated to create the Healthy Sail Panel, led by a former secretary of Health and Human Services and a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, for example. Carnival's advisers included a former U.S. surgeon general and a former director of the National Center for Global Health.

These protocols typically include initially requiring passengers and crew to be vaccinated and operating ships at reduced capacity to facilitate physical distancing. Cruisers can also expect improved air filtration systems, mask mandates in public areas, separate well-equipped testing and medical facilities for passengers who test positive while aboard a ship, testing of passengers and crew before and during a cruise, restrictions on shore excursions, increased al fresco dining options, and more.

Cruise ships docked in Skagway, Alaska

Blaine Harrington III / Alamy Stock Photo

Skagway, Alaska

Cruising Alaska

At this point, Alaska is a no-go for most large ships because the Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA) prohibits any foreign-flagged ship from starting and ending a cruise in the U.S. without stopping in another country (most cruise ships aren't U.S. flagged), but Canada has banned all cruising in its waters through February 2022. Concessions by either country could lift that hurdle, and Michelle Fee of Cruise Planners believes that will happen. “The people who live in those Alaska cities that cruise ships stop in are literally starving; they can't go a second season without some sort of business coming their way. We know the U.S. wants to help them,” she says.

Not all industry insiders share Fee's optimism. “A 2021 return to Alaska faces a difficult path. If your heart is set on cruising Alaska this year, your best bet is the small-ship companies that don't fall under PVSA requirements,” says notes Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic, a cruise news and review site. They include American Cruise Lines (ACL) and UnCruise Adventures. (Read our story for more on how to visit Alaska this summer.)

Cruise fans eager to sail

Cruise companies are banking on these protocols to ease fears the traveling public may have about cruising after the COVID-19 debacles at sea last year, and it appears they can breathe easy. Even as U.S. cruising remains uncertain, Americans are booking cruises in Mexico, the Caribbean and Europe.

Deborah Bell, a vaccinated retiree and frequent cruiser in Coronado, California, has booked a seven-day Mexican Riviera cruise with family aboard the Norwegian Bliss out of Los Angeles in December. The cruise lines “have learned from what happened and have gone to such extremes to make their ships’ safe,” she says. “I don't expect any repeat of what we saw last year,

Like Bell, plenty of other cruise fans seem to have faith in the protocols. Sales have been strong for new summer cruises homeporting out of the Bahamas, Bermuda and the Caribbean that Crystal Cruises, RCG, Viking and other companies started selling earlier this year to skirt the U.S. ban. Viking's six eight-day sailings out of Hamilton, Bermuda, aboard the Viking Orion have nearly sold out in a matter of weeks, so Marnell says more sailings may be added there. As Europe slowly opens up, companies are starting to sell cruises homeporting in countries such as Greece and Iceland with success, too. Viking offered four eight-day sailings out of Reykjavik, Iceland, on the Viking Sky that sold out within days, prompting the company to add two additional ones, with more possibly to come.

Ray Breslof, a semiretired controller who lives on Florida's West Coast with his wife, eagerly booked the first of Crystal's 32 seven-night cruises sailing out of the Bahamas on the Crystal Serenity beginning in July. “We've been cooped up for a long time, so when we saw that Crystal was running these round-trip cruises in and out of Nassau and Bimini, we basically said ‘let's go,’ “ Breslof says. “It's the first cruise this ship is going to be on in about a year, so that made us feel very comfortable.” Being vaccinated added to the couple's comfort level.

Cruise lines are helping fuel this demand with looser cancellation rules and other customer-friendly policies. When Breslof booked the Crystal cruise in March, the company only required a $750 deposit, with final payment not due until 60 days before the cruise. Many cruise companies are offering other booking incentives, including relaxed refund policies with a COVID diagnosis. RCI says it will give a passenger and his or her immediate travel party a full refund if any of them test positive within 14 days of their cruise or during it. In the case of the latter, the refund also applies to any confirmed close contacts on the cruise.

Fee says customers should take advantage of these perks, because they won't last forever: “If people don't make their reservations for 2022 now, they're either going to be shut out because the demand will outpace supply, or they're going to pay more because the rates will go up.” And, she adds, “You'll see cancellation penalties back in place where they were pre-COVID.”

An alternative: small-ship cruising

American Cruise Lines (ACL) and UnCruise Adventures sail Alaska, U.S. rivers (such as the Mississippi, Snake and Columbia rivers) and in Hawaii, New England and the San Juan Islands in Washington state. Not surprisingly, both companies are seeing skyrocketing demand given the current large-ship ban. ACL bookings are exceeding the company's 2019 record levels, and UnCruise's business has tripled compared to usual for this time period. “This will likely be the heaviest April and May we've ever had in our history,” says Dan Blanchard, UnCruise owner and CEO.

The story's the same for American Steamboat Co. (ASC), which currently has 74 cruises scheduled for 2021, on the Columbia, Mississippi, Ohio, Snake and Tennessee rivers. More than 40 of the sailings are already wait-listed and the company is predicting a sold-out season.

Sail with any of these small-ship companies and you can expect many of the same safety protocols adopted by the larger cruise lines, such as a negative COVID test before embarking and mask mandates in public areas. ASC and UnCruise are also requiring vaccinations for both crew and passengers. “Once we got into early March and the vaccination numbers were real and being exceeded, we quickly pivoted to vaccinated cruises, and that sent our bookings through the roof,” says Blanchard.

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