After almost 18 months of virtual dry dock, the world’s major cruise lines have begun their relaunch from US ports. But unlike previous embarkations – normally festive affairs – passengers are being welcomed aboard not only by bands, balloons, and ribbon-cuttings, but admonitions to heed strict sanitation, distancing and masking rules, shore-visiting restraints and virus testing protocols; and minutiae such as keeping one’s hands off the buffet cutlery. Then there are the really tough rules for the few unvaccinated guests who are not exactly being welcomed with open arms.
The relaunch out of US ports, particularly Florida, (the ‘world’s cruise capitol’) is the industry’s chance to show it has gained control over transmission of Covid-19 to the point sailing becomes, as Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line described ‘safer than a walk down main street’.
But with cruise companies reimposing mask mandates, social distancing and virus testing restraints on even their fully vaccinated guests within only a few days of their initial departures from US ports, it appears that proof of safety is still going to take some time.
Getting this reprieve has been tortuous for an industry that went from $154 billion in estimated total worldwide economic output in 2019 (according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA)) to complete stasis and a daily cash bleed of millions of dollars over the next 18 months. Although the three dominant cruise-line operators – Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, and Royal Caribbean Group–were able to raise about $40 billion through debt and equity sales (according to Barrons) to stay above water – a sign that there was life after Covid. Some also recouped considerable millions by jettisoning some of their older ships (some not that old) to salvage yards around the world for deconstructions and resale of parts.
The effect of CDC rules on cruises
In plotting their eventual return to sea, cruise line planners adopted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines in developing their own safety protocols that called for at least 95 per cent of passengers and all crew to be fully vaccinated and frequently tested (before, and during cruises); indoor masking and social distancing to be standard procedures; onboard venues and outdoor activities to be carefully monitored to minimise personal intermingling; and normal cruise staples such as self-serve buffets, dance contests, poolside chat ups to be downplayed. And not forgotten are CDC advisories to promote purchase of medical emergency and evacuation travel insurance coverage (including for Covid) for the fully vaccinated majority, and to make it mandatory for the few unvaccinated who can manoeuvre their way aboard.
At first, the CDC (which initially issued its No Sail Order out of US ports in March 2020) agreed to allow trials in which ships with only limited numbers of volunteer passengers would sail on short test voyages with the full CDC protocol requirements in place. If the trials were successful and there were no unacceptable virus transmission data recorded, they could resume normal schedules (though with protocols still in place). A few undertook the test challenge and returned with successful results.
Moving beyond the CDC test cruise exemplar, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) offered up ‘100 per cent fully vaccinated cruises – to do what you’ve always wanted to do on a cruise’. All NCL sailings until at least 31 October 2021 are to be exclusive for fully vaccinated passengers as well as mask-free, with no social distancing, no restrictions on capacity, unfettered access to restaurants, shore visits, saunas, water slide etc. The only catch? No unvaccinated passengers. Only those who can prove they were fully vaccinated could board.
To Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who had been working to get the cruise industry back afloat, Norwegian’s offer to book only passengers who could prove they were fully vaccinated was a step too far, as he had just recently signed an executive order prohibiting businesses (including cruise companies) from requiring customers to show proof of vaccinations. Norwegian persisted, and temporarily won a restraining order against the Governor’s edict, but the issue is bound to reverberate through courts for months.
In the meantime, it appears that all major cruise companies intend to restrict their guest rolls only to the fully vaccinated and deflect as best they can the unvaccinated – or relegate them to a sailing purgatory – multiple tests (for which they will pay up about $189 extra), total masking, lock out from elevators, choice restaurants and gambling venues, saunas, and pools; anything that smacks of fun. And they are consistent in urging travel insurance with medical benefits sufficient to cover medical care for Covid issues and evacuation for all passengers.
Furthermore, the cruise lines are also holding fast to CDC and World Health Organization guidelines that define ‘fully vaccinated’ as only those who have received ‘single brand’ vaccinations – both jabs with the same vaccine type. Carnival and Norwegian lines confirmed to ITIJ that international passengers who were vaccinated with multiple brands (e.g. Astra Zeneca and Pfizer) would be considered unvaccinated.
Travel insurance bolstering the price of cruising
Yielding to fears of further outbreak of the Delta variant in July, particularly in Florida, Carnival moved swiftly to announce that it was limiting all its sailings until the end of October 2021 to vaccinated passengers only: requiring even them to undergo pre-cruise testing within three days of embarkation as well as making on board masking de rigeur for most indoor venues.
Similarly, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, the second-largest player out of Florida ports, also announced reinstatement of compulsory masking indoors for all passengers, even the 95 per cent fully vaccinated, and like the CDC, urged travel insurance for all, but mandated it for the handful of unvaccinated who made it through the tapestry of required tests and trials.
Steve Benna, Marketing Manager for US travel insurance aggregator Squaremouth, told ITIJ that most cruise line requirements for passengers range from $10,000 for medical emergencies and between $20,000 to $50,000 in medical evacuation coverage. Most policies sold by Squaremouth will meet or exceed those limits, he said. And he notes that in July 2021, roughly three per cent of travellers who purchased insurance did so for cruise purposes, compared to 1.6 per cent for the first six months of this year, although that number is likely an underestimate because it denotes only those who purchased through Squaremouth’s ‘cruise’ filter, and it is possible to purchase such cover aside from the filter.
Megan Keyata, Media Representative for online aggregator Insuremytrip, told ITIJ that cruise travel policies make up about 15 per cent of all policies sold through that site through the end of July 2021, which compares to 24 per cent for the comparable period in 2019. But she notes that for the first few months of 2021, there was no active market for cruises and little indication when cruises might re-sail.
Benna adds that travellers buying cruise insurance through Squaremouth are making their purchases approximately 218 days before departure. The average non-cruise consumer buys about 66 days before travel. This may indicate a robust winter sailing season – all things being equal.
Typically, says Megan Welch, InsureMyTrip’s Product Manager, the base cost for comprehensive travel insurance plans range from about four to 10 per cent of the total trip cost. For example, a couple in their mid-50s with a $5,000, seven-day trip could spend about $160-$620 for their cover, and if they upgrade to a Cancel for Any Reason plan, they can expect to up the ante by an additional 40 to 60 per cent.
Adds Suzanne Morrow, VP of Business Development for InsureMyTrip: “Cruises are selling out, so it appears that people are willing to absorb the expense of travel insurance to be able to cruise again.”
Given the uncertainty of cruise rules and schedules over the coming months leading up to the critical winter warm-water cruising season, it appears that incipient cruisers are not only willing, but downright determined, to get back to sea.