By Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell
In 2019, I discovered the joy of ocean cruising. I love the all-inclusive food and drink packages, the myriad of entertainment and the opportunity to experience different ports of call — often seeing several different countries in a week or less.
I enjoyed my first cruise so much, I booked another to a different part of the Caribbean and bought a discount package for more cruises before I even left the ship.
Two short months later, COVID changed the world, both on land and at sea. The cruise industry shut down and my second planned excursion in 2020 was canceled.
Since then, my travel buddy Jeanie and I scrapped our plans for a second Caribbean cruise and decided instead on an Alaskan trip scheduled to set sail in September of this year.
“What? I wouldn’t be caught on one of those floating petri dishes,” many friends and family told me. When COVID numbers spiked again this past spring, we decided to rebook our Alaskan cruise, this time for September 2023.
Signs of a (slow) recovery
Since that time, Jeanie has had COVID, and with the reported easy transmission of the latest variant I’m leery once again about being out and about too much. However, it seems we are in the minority of cruise passengers.
Writers and others who track the industry for a living say that people are returning to this form of travel, an observation supported by financial filings by the three biggest cruise lines. Carnival /zigman2/quotes/202325446/composite CCL +4.61% was back to 69% of capacity at the end of May, the end of its most recent quarter, up from 31% a year earlier; Royal Caribbean /zigman2/quotes/208854639/composite RCL +3.15% was at 82% of capacity at the end of June, up from 27.5%; and Norwegian Cruise Lines /zigman2/quotes/204183397/composite NCLH +4.15% was at 64.6%, compared with 58.1% a year ago.
“For the most part, everyone is thrilled to be back, and crew and passengers alike want to make it work,” says David Yeskel, travel journalist and cruise expert for Cruise Guru, based in Santa Monica, California.
People may be returning in part, due to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dropping its risk advisory for cruise ship passengers in March and issuing new guidelines in July.
Susan Stafford, co-founder of The Event Architects in Tallahassee, Florida, which books many event cruises for clients, says she was on a cruise in November 2021 and another in April 2022. Although the cruises were just five months apart, there was a world of difference.
Improving the passenger experience
In November, Stafford says, all passengers were required to mask and maintain social distancing while in any public space on the ship. Stafford adds the cruise in November wasn’t as much fun as those pre-COVID. “They were at 50% capacity and there just wasn’t the energy you find and love on ships,” she says.
By April, however, the cruise line she sailed on (and declined to name) had relaxed its mask and some social distancing restrictions and streamlined vaccination requirements and boarding protocols.
“Three years ago, if you’d cruise, you check in at the dock and get your keys there,” Stafford says. “They now don’t want that many people herded into a waiting area together, so many allow you to check in and collect your keycards that are hanging on the door of your room.”
Ramping back up, cautiously
Most cruise lines also have digitalized the proof of vaccination documentation (although some still require you to show a hard copy at check-in) and negative COVID test results, which must be done 48 hours before boarding. The tests can be self-administered but must be remotely monitored.
For now, at least, passengers should prepare to produce proof of vaccination. Stafford says cruise lines currently allow few exemptions. The CDC recommends between 90% to 95% percent of passengers be vaccinated.