Cruise Lines End COVID Vaccination Requirement
In the latest sign that the cruise industry is seeking to move on beyond the fears of COVID-19 and the pandemic, most major cruise lines announced starting September they are further relaxing restrictions including in many cases ending the requirements for passengers to be vaccinated. As an industry, they are saying that they are following the advice of medical professionals and working to reflect the societal norms in many parts of the world.
The move to drop one of the last key restrictions for travelers comes just a month after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ended its COVID oversight program of the cruise industry. In July, the CDC quietly withdrew its voluntary COVID protocols under which ships reported cases of the virus and continued restrictions ranging from pre-cruise testing to requirements that most passengers and crew be vaccinated. While saying the risks remained and that it would continue to provide guidance to the cruise lines and travelers, the CDC cited the progress of the cruise lines and the strong protocols in place.
Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, the parent company of Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, was the first to confirm the shift in policy making the announcement on August 8 saying it was moving to align the company with the broader travel, leisure, and hospitality industry. Vaccinated guests aged 12 and over will no longer have any pre-cruise COVID-19 related protocols and unvaccinated guests may embark with a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours prior to departure, subject to local regulations, according to the policies posted to the three cruise lines’ websites.
“Our long-awaited revisions to our testing and vaccination requirements bring us closer in line with the rest of society, which has learned to adapt and live with COVID-19, and makes it simpler and easier for our loyal guests,” said Frank Del Rio, President and Chief Executive Officer of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings. “The relaxation of protocols coupled with continued easing of travel restrictions and the reopening to cruise in more ports around the globe are meaningfully positive for our business as it reduces friction, expands the addressable cruise market, brings variety to itineraries and provides additional catalysts on the road to recovery.”
By week’s end, the Royal Caribbean Group, which owns Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, and Silversea, as well as Carnival Corporation had followed suit with a similar end to the vaccination requirements. Carnival Corporation’s brands from Carnival Cruise Line to Holland America, Princess, Cunard, and others all quickly announced the changes to their policies also due to take effect in early September.
"Our ships have been sailing very full all summer, but there is still room for more of our loyal guests, and these guidelines will make it a simpler process, and make cruising accessible for those who were not able to meet the protocols we were required to follow for much of the past 14 months," said Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line.
While travelers were pleased to hear the news, the end to the requirement varies both by destination and length of cruise. In most cases, they are still keeping the rules in place for longer cruises lasting more than 16-days. In addition, many foreign destinations are still requiring that passengers be vaccinated for the cruise ships to visit their ports.
The end of the vaccination requirement, however, is still seen as a key step in the efforts for the industry to rebound. Marking one year since cruises resumed from U.S. ports, Carnival Cruise Line at the beginning of August highlighted that it has welcomed back three million passengers to its ships. They said that some of their ships were expected to operate with as high as 110 percent of occupancy (meaning they are using third and fourth berths in cabins mostly for families).
Major cruise companies have reported a strong rebound in occupancy. Royal Caribbean International, for example, said during its second quarter occupancy was back to 84 percent with it reaching 90 percent in June and some Caribbean voyages over 100 percent for the summer. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings operated with a lower 65 percent occupancy during the second quarter as the corporation sought to limit discounts and drive cash flow from operations. The company turned cash positive in March 2022 and generated approximately $260 million in cash from operations in the second quarter.
The industry’s optimism is driven by strong future sales. All the cruise lines report strong future bookings. Norwegian, for example, in this week’s earnings report said this quarter set a new record for total advance ticket sales and the prices were at record levels for the full year 2023. The end of the vaccination requirements is seen as another encouraging step and the cruise lines are hopeful that as problems recede with air travel that their bookings and occupancy will continue to rise.