After CDC drops its Covid cruise policy, will testing and vax rules remain?: Travel Weekly

Andrea Zelinski

It’s time for cruise lines to decide how stringent to make their vaccination and pre-cruise testing rules now that the CDC is no longer telling them what to do.

The CDC retired its Covid-19 Program for Cruise Ships last week, scrapping requirements for pre-cruise testing and reporting vaccination rates for cruise sailings in and out of the U.S.

Up until now, ships needed to maintain a 90% vaccination rate among passengers and crew in order to be designated “highly vaccinated.” Now, to operate a cruise ship from U.S. ports, the CDC is simply recommending that all eligible travelers be up to date with their vaccines.

In other words, it’s now up to each cruise line how it wants to enforce testing and vaccination rules on U.S. cruises.

  • Related: CEO Arnold Donald on the end of the CDC’s cruise Covid program

It’s no secret the cruise industry felt targeted by the CDC’s oversight during the pandemic as other travel sectors like hotels and airlines evaded the same level of scrutiny. But now that cruise lines have regained their autonomy, what will they do with that freedom? 

The new variant

Cruise lines can’t pretend the world is back to normal. The BA.5 variant of Covid-19, the most transmissible variant yet, is now dominant among U.S. cases. Although symptoms appear to be mild, the number of cases and hospitalizations are higher than almost any point this summer, as the variant that’s exceedingly good at dodging immunity from vaccines or prior exposure spreads through the U.S.

“The last thing the cruise lines need” is for a ship with a major Covid outbreak to be in the news, said Mike Estill, COO of the Western Association of Travel Agencies. It is for that reason that Estill expects cruise lines won’t drop their regulations like flipping off a light switch.

“We’re going to see some creative ideas, and we’re going to see some different trajectories from different products,” Estill predicted. “If I’ve got a 5,000-passenger ship half-full of kids, that’s one thing; if I’ve got a 600-passenger ship mostly full of grandparents, maybe that’s a different thing.”

Reaching a wider pool of passengers

At the same time, the cruise industry is working on a comeback. Occupancy for mass-market Caribbean sailings for all future periods is “significantly off” from 2019 levels, Truist securities analyst Patrick Scholes said. That’s led to heavy promotional pricing to attract guests on board to grow load factors back to historical levels in the second half of 2022, he added. There’s clearly pressure on the lines to get more passengers on board at higher prices.

But does that mean cruise lines will drop their vaccination requirements to sell to a wider pool of travelers? In a Q&A with guests on the 2022 Presidential Cruise on the Ovation of the Seas in late June, Royal Caribbean International CEO Michael Bayley was hesitant to say when he thought vaccination requirements would go away. “Many and most of the destinations that we visit require a high degree of vaccination, and they expect our crew to be vaccinated,” he said, according to Royal Caribbean Blog. 

Removing testing as a possible first step

Some cruise lines are instead ready to do away with pre-embarkation testing. Virgin Voyages, Azamara and Margaritaville at Sea were some of the first lines to drop their testing requirement once the CDC eliminated its oversight. Norwegian Cruise Line said in early July that it planned to remove pre-cruise testing for vaccinated guests sailing from any port except those from the U.S., Canada or Piraeus, Greece, and said it’s still reviewing details of the CDC’s guidance before deciding what to do in the U.S.  

CLIA said it is reviewing the CDC’s new guidance as it reshapes its policies for mitigating Covid-19. Meanwhile, most cruise lines are waiting before making any big decisions.

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