Regulatory Obstacles From Cruise Ban Could be Preventing a Global Restart
Outbreaks of COVID-19 on cruise ships early in the pandemic such as the one on Diamond Princess in January 2020 and the subsequent widespread of the virus across the U.S., led to the complete shutdown of the U.S. cruise market – the biggest worldwide – since March 13, 2020. According to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), a cruise industry trade association, the suspension of cruising in the U.S. from the CDC cruise ban resulted in a loss of more than US$32 billion in economic activity and more than 254,000 American jobs.
However, with the steady rollout of vaccines through 2021 the cruise industry sought an easing in the regulatory stance – much like other transportation modes, including flights – as the industry deserved a fair chance to undertake safe excursions within and outside the U.S. Yet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s CDC cruise ban, or the no-sail orders are still intact at the time of publishing this article. As a consequence, the future of the U.S. cruise industry hangs in the balance.
GLOBAL INDUSTRY, LOCAL LAWS AND CDC CRUISE BAN
Notwithstanding the major blow faced in the U.S., the cruise industry is still global. Several vessels are anchored in international waters awaiting clearance in their respective jurisdictions and are aiming for a gradual return to service. It is also important to note that cruise departures never entirely ceased during the pandemic.
Shorter sails continued in Europe and Asia, offering excursions with departures and return to the same port without any additional stops in 2020. Besides, cruise lines had to incorporate new operating protocols to abide by the respective country’s COVID-19 rules. Two of TUI Group’s lines – Hapag-Lloyd Cruises and TUI Cruises offered itineraries starting and ending in Hamburg, Germany, operating at a restricted passenger capacity of 60% to adhere to local regulations.
In Italy, MSC Cruises launched MSC Grandiosa – the first large ship sailing from Genoa – in mid-August. To manage sailing during the pandemic, various screening initiates were followed at the Genoa cruise terminal, including temperature checks, medical reviews of a health questionnaire submitted by passengers, and a COVID-antigen swab test. On the other hand, cruise lines such as Viking and Royal Caribbean, with registries across Bermuda and The Bahamas, redeployed their cruises for sailing within those countries, free of restrictions.
Circling back to the U.S., cruise lines seeking to operate from a U.S. port are to adhere to a series of regulations released by the CDC, under the Framework for Conditional Sailing Order (CSO). According to the new order updated by the CDC on May 5, 2021, passenger voyages were still restricted, and to resume, cruise operators need to apply for a Conditional Sailing Certificate. While restarting, the focus is mainly on safety aspects such as reduced capacity and strict health and safety protocols in place. These include eliminating self-serving buffets in favor of spaced-out table setup; activities with fewer participants and reduced contact; and a mandatory requirement of wearing masks for unvaccinated travelers. Equally, the CDC has also lightened certain restrictions for fully vaccinated travelers such as the optional wearing of masks except in crowded areas.
CRUISING AND VACCINATION
With revised guidelines from the CDC, cruise lines such as Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH) considered resuming operations with a reduced capacity of 60% and mandating vaccination for all crew and passengers. Frank Del Rio, CEO, NCLH stressed, “Because the return to service plan mandates the entire population on its ships be vaccinated, it reduces the risk of outbreaks and severe COVID-19 cases”.
Some U.S. ports have also stepped forward and have temporarily transformed into massive vaccination sites. Almost 1,300 crew members from Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas and Navigator of the Seas were vaccinated at Port Miami in the first week of May 2021. Individual cruise lines such as Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean, and UnCruise Adventures have announced vaccination requirements for guests too, signaling confidence towards a safer guest experience.
A NEW WORLD ORDER
Undoubtedly COVID-19 has created a new world order of cruises. Facing new restrictions in the pre-pandemic core countries, numerous cruise lines are engaging with alternative countries and ports, exploring new itineraries based on permissible routes and regulations. Smaller ships that have still been able to operate as they restricted their movements to domestic routes, opened a new era of interest in sailing U.S. waters. These sailings were permitted by the respective ports of arrival within the domestic boundaries. Since March 2021, American Cruise Lines and Victory Cruise Lines have rolled out more sailings on the Mississippi River and added itineraries sailing the Great Lakes, Pacific Northwest, and East Coast for travelers who want to explore waterways closer to home.
Major brands have also stated that they would move outside of U.S. if the CDC regulations were not relaxed. The Seaborn Cruise Line, Carnival Corp.’s U.S.-based cruise line that functions normally from U.S. home ports announced service resumption from overseas for its North American cruisers, following similar moves by Crystal Cruises, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Line. On one hand, it surely will open opportunities for newer ports outside the U.S. but on the other, it will leave the U.S. shores empty. With cruises moving outside of their home ports and cruise departures from U.S. ports being forbidden by CDC, cruise operators are eager to change their sailing strategies.
Like many other travel sectors, the cruise industry is poised for a strong comeback based on pent-up demand carried over from 2020. Cruise lines are striving to maintain the interest among travelers by initiating new ways of safe travel on board. In the hope that the CDC cruise ban will be relaxed, cruise lines are looking forward to embarking on ocean departures soon.