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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, and with relaxed rules for fully vaccinated passengers. In a letter sent to the cruise industry April 28, the CDC clarified the latest phase of its Conditional Sail Order 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 order had put cruising on hold until November.

Some easing of restrictions makes 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.

These changes affect travelers directly:

  • Cruise lines will not have to test fully vaccinated passengers when they embark or disembark, but those not vaccinated will have to be tested, using either the polymerase chain-reaction (PCR) or the rapid antigen test.
  • During port stops, and at the discretion of the cruise lines, fully vaccinated passengers can participate in independently operated tours or explore on their own, provided they wear masks when indoors.
  • At their discretion, cruise lines can allow fully vaccinated passengers to go maskless outdoors on a ship, except in crowded settings.
  • 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,” says Michelle Fee, founder and CEO of Cruise Planners, an American Express travel representative. “The CDC is moving in the right direction by updating some of its outdated requirements [for cruising] and bringing them up to the current restriction level that would be found at similar hospitality venues shorewide, such as restaurants, bars and casinos.”


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Pushback against ‘burdensome’ CDC requirements

These encouraging developments came after the CDC faced heavy criticism for the latest phase of its Conditional Sail Order, which it issued April 2, and then its Full Guidelines for U.S. Cruise Resumption, released May 5. The sail order update recommended that crew, passengers and port workers be vaccinated; set additional requirements; and set no timeline for test cruises. In response, Florida filed a lawsuit, joined by Texas and Washington, asking the court to find the order unlawful. (All three states are home to big-cruise port cities.) And the Cruise Lines International Association 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, 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.”

Frank del Rio, president and chief executive officer of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, called the full guidelines “preposterous” in a call with investors May 6. “We’re willing to [initially] vaccinate every single person aboard a cruise ship. There isn’t another venue on earth — not a school, not a factory, not your office building, apartment building, much less an entertainment venue, like a casino, hotel or resort — that can make that claim. We will be the safest place on earth by definition … yet the CDC continues to treat us differently, we dare say unfairly.”

Subsequently, on May 12, the CDC did relax some of the restrictions for fully vaccinated passengers, as noted above.

Both Fain and del Rio are seemingly in lockstep with the cruising public. “Before the update, we heard from many cruisers who are happy to sail with vaccination requirements but were hesitant to sail with so many additional restrictions that they wouldn’t necessarily have with a land-based trip,” says Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic, a cruise news and review site.

Ironically, with the cruise lines finally scoring some wins with the CDC, they’ve now been hit with a big roadblock from the least likely source — Florida, home to North America’s three busiest cruise ports: On May 3, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a ban on so-called vaccination passports, which will prevent cruise lines from requiring passengers to be vaccinated. Cruise lines are hoping for concessions, considering the industry pumps so much money into the Florida economy. “Hopefully, the governor will throw a bone to cruise lines and agree that vaccines can be required on cruise ships,” Fee says. “I’ve heard there are conversations.”

New safety protocols

Cruise lines have turned to infection-disease specialists and other medical experts to help develop their new protocols. Royal Caribbean and Norwegian 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

On May 24, President Biden signed into law the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act, increasing the probability that cruise lines will be sailing in Alaska sometime this summer. The bill temporarily suspends the longtime requirement that foreign-registered ships starting and ending a cruise in the U.S. stop in another country. The suspension applies only to large cruise ships sailing between Washington state and Alaska. This is a pivotal step because Canada has banned all cruising in its waters through February 2022, when the suspension would expire.

One caveat: The CDC still must give the big-ship cruise lines the green light to sail, but the companies are so confident they’ll get the go-ahead that they started selling 2021 Alaska cruises again last week, even before the bill passed. These cruises, mostly weeklong voyages, will leave out of Seattle between July and October.

The Carnival Corp. announced that Holland America will offer the cruises beginning July 24; Princess Cruises, July 25; and Carnival Cruise Lines, July 27. Norwegian Cruise Lines begins its sailings on Aug. 7. All of these voyages will initially require that passengers and crew be fully vaccinated, which will allow the cruise lines to bypass the CDC-mandated test cruises. (Carnival has not yet decided whether it will require vaccinations on cruises to other destinations, while Norwegian has committed to do so at least initially.)

Royal Caribbean International will begin its cruises on July 19; Celebrity Cruises, on July 23. These two brands, owned by the Royal Caribbean Group, will initially require that Alaska passengers 16 and older be fully vaccinated, and beginning Aug. 1, all passengers 12 and older.

Despite the CDC hurdle the cruise lines still face, some industry insiders are optimistic big ships will ply Alaskan waters this season. “Given that Alaska’s tourism industry has suffered disproportionately from the lack of cruising — and the cruise lines sailing out of Seattle are adopting the vaccine requirements encouraged by the CDC — the chances of the newly announced Alaska sailings going ahead look very positive,” says Chris Gray Faust, managing editor of Cruise Critic, a cruise news and review site.

Fee with Cruise Planners agrees: “We are extremely optimistic. It’s a little early to tell what new 2021 Alaska cruise booking volume is, since the news just broke. However, our 2022 Alaska cruise season is off the charts, so the pent-up demand to cruise Alaska is certainly there.”

Others are more skeptical. “It remains to be seen if the ships can meet the CDC requirements. I tend to be cautious, so I haven’t encouraged [clients to book these] earlier Alaska sailings, and frankly, have not had any calls for them,” says Linda Allen, with Cruises by Linda, an independent affiliate of Brownell Travel, a Virtuoso agency. “Until there is more clarity on the CDC requirements, I’m still in wait-and-see mode.” 

Meanwhile, small-ship operators not affected by the legal restrictions on large ships, such as American Cruise Lines and UnCruise Adventures, are sailing in Alaskan waters. (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 out of the Bahamas, Bermuda and the Caribbean that Crystal Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Viking and other companies started selling 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 the company just added two more. 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 15 additional ones. And it just announced 18 sailings out of Malta between July and early October on the Viking Sea and its new Viking Venus.

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 required only 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. Royal Caribbean 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 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. American Cruise 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., 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 requiring a negative COVID test before embarking and mask mandates in public areas. American Steamboat 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.

About those test cruises

Want to go on a test cruise? In advance of boarding, be prepared to read a written document provided by the cruise line stating that you’re participating in a test of protocols unproven and untested in the U.S. and that sailing during a pandemic is inherently risky.

In other big CDC news on May 5, the agency provided more details on how cruise lines must conduct simulated cruises, including a requirement they provide such a document to all passengers (all of whom must be volunteers) by posting it on their website, through email or by written letter. You’ll also be required to sign an informed consent, a document that also states you’re sailing with no condition of employment or in exchange for future reward.

Here, some of the other passenger requirements:

  • You must show proof of being fully vaccinated.
  • If not fully vaccinated, you must provide a written document from a health care provider or a self-certified statement that you have no medical conditions that would put you at high risk for severe COVID-19 infection.
  • You must be tested for COVID-19 when you embark (unless you can show proof of recovery from COVID-19) and disembark.
  • You must adhere to face mask and social distancing rules.
  • In port stops, you can’t explore on your own; rather, you must participate in excursions with only passengers and crew members from your ship.
  • In writing, you must agree to provide a post-cruise specimen collection for COVID-19 testing three to five days after the voyage.
  • For purposes of contract tracing, you must agree to advise the cruise line if you develop COVID-19 symptoms or are diagnosed with COVID-19 within 14 days of completing the voyage.

Sailings must run from two to seven days and include at least one overnight stay.

So far, no cruise lines have announced test cruises out of North American ports. Some say they’re still evaluating the latest from the CDC, while Norwegian and others say they’ll be able to bypass the cruises because they’ll meet the 98/95 percent vaccination thresholds set by the CDC.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on May 3. It's been updated to reflect new information.

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