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Cruising is Back!

Every Wednesday there is a Travel Advisor webex presentation put on by Royal Caribbean that I try to attend when I can. For the past year, they would end the presentation with “We will be back”. This changed last week when for the first time in a year they said “We are back”.

But by back, we are not saying everything is back to how it was, or that you can even jump on a cruise this week. By saying “We are back” it means that there is a fixed sail date when they will be sailing, without having to cancel all their sailings for another month. That fixed date comes this June.

CDC NO SAIL ORDER

Before I get into the resumption of cruising, I want to talk about the CDC’s part in all this.

Last year the CDC used its emergency powers to bring the travel industry to a complete stop. I am not saying it wasn’t warranted, because it was. There were cruise ships with almost 100% of their passengers Covid positive, whole countries were closing their borders and dealing with the Covid crisis, and it was almost impossible to even travel through the United States unless you were an essential worker.

As time went on borders started opening again and travel restrictions started easing, at least for airlines, theme parks, hotels, and pretty much anything other than cruise lines.

In October last year, the CDC paved a way for cruise lines to start sailing again by setting cruise line goals. They set a November 1, 2021 date for cruising to be back but said that could come sooner if certain goals were met. Since October the CDC has done nothing (no future recommendations or clarification of the goals) to help the cruise lines get back to sailing.

Over the past few weeks, several things have happened. The CDC announced that it was expecting to keep the November 1st date to revisit cruising. When it did this, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) and the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) requested the CDC rethink their decision. The CDC did not.

CLIA came out with an online form where anyone could go and put their name and address in and a letter would be emailed to the state governor, senators, and congressmen. In less than a week, there were over 40,000 of these forms completed and sent to the state representatives asking them to intervene and have the CDC cancel its emergency no-sail order.

This past week the CDC revised its position and said that cruising could possibly start back up this summer. However, they put more restrictions on what would happen when cruising started again including daily Covid updates instead of weekly, the time it takes for a ship to go from “red” to “green” in that system from 28 to 114 days, and other restrictions. These additional restrictions will make it almost impossible for cruise lines to be able to sail from the U.S. again by this summer.

So while the CDC said it will possibly allow ships to start sailing again, they added so many restrictions that they are basically looking at Fall before cruise lines will start sailing again.

CRUISE LINES

The United States is the largest cruise market in the world. To say that the CDC’s order is crippling the cruise market is an understatement. There are over 254,000 jobs that are currently on suspension here in the U.S.A. alone because of the no-sail order. The cruise lines are losing billions of dollars and being forced to find alternative ways to stay afloat.

Even if the CDC canceled the emergency order today, cruises would not start sailing again tomorrow. It takes about 90 days for a cruise to be ramped up. This includes things like securing ports to go to, ordering the right amount of food for the ships, getting cruise personnel.

As the CDC has not made any effort to lift the ban at this time, cruise lines have started to explore alternatives to sailing this summer for its biggest cruise market.

Over the past three weeks Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian, Seabourn, and Viking have all announced that they will be sailing this summer from alternate ports. U.S. sailings will now be going out of the Bahamas, Bermuda, and the Caribbean. This works great for those sailing from the east coast as these destinations are close and affordable. The west coast does not have it so easy but I am sure there will be announcements coming for those sailings as well. I anticipate sailings will resume out of the west coast of Mexico and maybe even the Galápagos Islands.

Carnival also made an announcement this week that if the CDC didn’t lift the no sail order soon, they would be forced to cancel the US sailings and start sailing out of other ports as well. Carnival holdings include Carnival, Regent Seven Seas, and Oceania Cruises. It’s the largest cruise company in the world.

WHAT TO EXPECT AND WHEN?

Because it takes about 90 days to get started back up, these cruise lines I mentioned above have hard sail dates starting as early as June of this year.

One thing I have not mentioned in this article is that in Florida our Governor is fighting to have cruising start back up. He and our Attorney General are looking at the legal aspects of what the CDC is doing and what they can do to get the CDC to back off. While it is relevant to the startup of cruising, it isn’t as relevant to this article because cruising is going to be back regardless of the outcome of this. The ports may change to include the U.S. again but either way, come June you can be on a cruise. And as I mentioned above, even if the CDC backed off today, it would still be about 90 days before we see any U.S. sailings.

What should you expect when going on these cruises? Will things be back to the way they were before?

Vaccinations: Cruising is going to be a completely new experience when we start sailing again. To start off with, you will have to show that you have been vaccinated. This is something I have heard a lot of people being against (not the vaccination, but having to show a vaccination passport). The good news is that this will be a temporary thing.

On my Royal Caribbean call yesterday, they had guests from CLIA on the phone – CLIA’s President and VP Industry Trade. When talking about the vaccinations they put out there that once the virus is not a high threat anymore, the proof of vaccination would go away. But for now, everyone including ship employees would need to have the shot.

I take this to mean maybe by the end of the year or some time into next year as the earliest for the vaccine requirements to go away. If you are planning on sailing this year, plan on having the vaccination.

Masks: For now, you will have to wear masks on board. This is part of the CDC requirements. Even if the CDC relaxes this requirement it will be up to the cruise line if they will require masks or not. Some international cruises not subject to the CDC restrictions right now are sailing and enforcing mask-wearing. If you are swimming or eating you won’t need a mask, and hopefully by the time sailing starts back up you won’t need it if you are outside.

Covid Checks: Just like anywhere else, expect to have some basic screening done when you get to the port. These include having your temperature taken and being asked the standard Covid test (“Have you had a positive test in the last 14 days”, “Have you had contact with anyone who has Covid?”, etc).

Also, expect to be screened while on the ship as well. They won’t be coming to your cabin every morning and giving you a full screen of questions but when you go to meals or some ship venues there may be someone there to take your temperature.

Off the ship: For now, you will only be able to go on shore excursions provided by the cruise line. This is to ensure that you are not around other people who may have Covid. The tour operators are screened and have agreements with the cruise lines on their Covid policies to ensure you are safe, even in countries where the Covid guidelines are not as strict.

You will also not be able to just get off the ship to walk around the port or city where you are anchored. Again, this is because the cruise line won’t know who you have been in contact with and can’t guarantee the safety of their other guests if you picked up Covid while in port.

Norwegian Cruise Lines says they expect this to be short-lived through the end of August. After August you should be able to book tours outside of Norwegian.

** Remember that the vaccination does not guarantee that you won’t get Covid or that you won’t spread it if you do, it just lessens the effects if you get it. **

Buffets: This is one thing that I can see becoming permanent on the ships. Buffets will not be the same as they were where you can just walk up and get whatever you want. Two weeks ago I had an in-person get-together with some other travel advisors and our Royal Caribbean representative for this area. One of the topics was buffets. This is what he told us.

When you go to a buffet, their food will be set up as it always was. Between the food and the guests will be a cruise line employee and a stanchion (rope separator). The guest will tell the employee what they want from the buffet and the employee will turn around, put the food on the plate and hand it to the guest.

The reason I see this being something permanent is that buffets are the biggest waste of food on cruise ships This will let the employees’ portion control each plate so not as much food is wasted. You can always go back for more!

Social Distancing: If you are going to the dining room or up to see a show, there will be social distancing between groups of people. You can sit with your party but there may be a couple of extra seats between your party and the next one.

The first thing that came to my mind with this was if I would be able to see the show I wanted and how long would I have to wait to eat in the dining room if they are at reduced capacity? The simple answer to this is that you shouldn’t see much of a difference.

When sailing starts back up, the ships are going to be sailing at a reduced capacity. If a ship is sailing at only 50% and they are allowing 60% capacity into the dining areas and shows, that 60% is the total capacity it can hold and not the capacity of those on the ship. For example, if a ship holding 4000 guests is sailing at 50% capacity that is 2000 guests. There are two dining times and the dining rooms can hold 2000 guests each dining session. Dining is now limited to 60% (1,200 guests) and there is plenty of space for all the guests in the two dining sessions. Same with the shows.

Other items onboard: Depending on the cruise line, you may not have your room turned over every day. They may limit the number of times crew members can enter cabins.

You have already seen how many hand sanitizations stations there are onboard, expect to see more!

You may also notice crew members walking around with gloves on as well.

FINAL NOTES

Right now, there are cruise lines sailing internationally. Of the 270 ships around the world, only about 20 are currently sailing. These are CLIA member cruise line numbers. 95% of ocean-going cruise lines are part of CLIA.

MSC has been sailing for several months and has had an infection rate of only 0.006%.

When Covid first hit no one was ready for it or knew how to handle it. You had entire cruise ships filled with Covid infected passengers. Over the past year, the cruise industry has retro-fitted ships with the latest in environmental filtration systems, updated their medical protocols, and come up with sanitization standards that go beyond what you will find on aircraft or hotels.

The cruise industry has gone above the requirements of the CDC and WHO to ensure that their guests are safe.

When the Norovirus first came out it was pretty high on cruise ships and people today still think of it as the cruise disease. But that is not true today. In the U.S., the risk of getting norovirus each year is about 1 in 15; a cruise passenger has about 1 in 5,500 chance of getting laboratory-confirmed norovirus during a shipboard outbreak. This goes to show how seriously the cruise lines take these threats and how well they handle them.

With over a year to do nothing but prepare for Covid, the cruise lines are more prepared now to take on guests than they have ever been.