As the cruise industry comes up on a full year with no cruising, it's natural to look to 2021 and see where things stand.
It's a blurry picture, at least in March, where a definitive return to the seas date is still hazy. The majority of cruise lines are still stalled. Just a handful of ships are sailing, generally with lowered capacity.
Governments are still imposing restrictions and lockdowns against travel in general, in an effort to get people vaccinated before more virus variants develop, and against cruising, specifically, as large group activities overall are discouraged.
Add this to the delays on necessary regulations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.K.'s Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office having a specific ban on ocean cruises (the only travel sector with a specific ban) and Transport Canada banning large cruise ships through 2022, effectively killing the 2021 Alaska and New England seasons.
Still, there are some rays of hopes. COVID-19 vaccination is underway worldwide. Restarts will take place in markets with lower infection rates. Small ship and luxury lines are receiving more bookings than ever from loyal and new cruisers alike. Demand for cruising continues to be high.
Here is the current snapshot of the cruise 2021 season, taken from what we know just a few months in.
Vaccine Rollout Will Make an Impact
The worldwide vaccination drive against COVID-19 is underway, and this is likely to affect the industry in a positive way.
Still undecided by most lines is whether to require crew to be vaccinated, passengers to get the jab or both. The issue is further complicated by the fact that different countries are using different vaccines, and there's no real consensus on how long immunity lasts.
Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings was the first major cruise company to say it was looking into require crew to be vaccinated. Royal Caribbean confirmed in February 2021 that it would require crew to be vaccinated and is launching its first fully vaccinated ship, the new Odyssey of the Seas, in Israel, beginning in May. Neither Carnival Corporation or MSC Cruises have followed suit -- yet.
Several lines have now said that they will require passengers to be vaccinated before boarding. Saga in the U.K. was the first, followed by American Queen Steamboat Company and Victory Cruise Lines in the U.S., which also said all crew and staff would need to be vaccinated as well. (Saga has said it will not have a vaccination requirement for its crew.) Crystal Cruises has also added a vaccine mandate for its entire fleet.
On Europe's rivers, Globus travel, which oversees Avalon Waterways, has said that passengers can present proof of a vaccine as one condition for boarding; if people aren't or haven't gotten the vaccine, they can present proof of a negative COVID-19 test or proof of immunity from a recent infection. Celestyal Cruises also has said proof of vaccination could replace the requirement for negative COVID-19 test results.
While there are some unknowns with the vaccine, including if people who have been immunized can spread COVID-19 as well as how long protection lasts, it's safe to predict that as more people around the world receive vaccines, herd immunity will build and travel will open up.
It might also be likely that countries and ports require proof of a vaccination before entry. This probably is what many cruise lines would prefer so they aren't put in the position of making vaccines mandatory for passengers. (As employers, the cruise lines are well within their rights to require them for crew.)
Still, Cruise Critic's ongoing reader sentiment surveys have found that an overwhelming percentage of travelers -- 80 percent, of more than 5,000 respondents -- said they would get the vaccine if it was required to cruise. Only 6 percent said it would be a deterrent. Another 85 percent of those surveyed said they would be more likely to take a cruise if crew members were required to be vaccinated.
Even with vaccines, the health and safety precautions developed in 2020 -- mask wearing, social distancing, contract tracing and ship-sponsored shore excursions -- are likely to extend throughout this year.
Small Ship Lines More Likely to Restart, Becoming More Popular
It's perhaps not surprising that the first cruise lines to require vaccines for passengers are on the smaller side.
Simply put, it's easier to fill a small ship with people who have already received -- or know they will receive -- the vaccine before this summer. Both Saga and American Queen Steamboat Company embrace and acknowledge the older demographic on their ships, who happen to be the first ones in line for the jabs.
Smaller ships are also able to be more nimble when it comes to different destinations. In Alaska, for example, the 2021 season is likely going to belong to the few small ship lines that have 250 passengers or fewer, as they are able to operate outside the requirements of the CDC's Framework for Conditional Sailing."
Transport Canada announced a cruise ship ban through February 2022, which, if upheld, essentially cancels the Alaska season for the big cruise ships because of requirements outlined by the Passenger Vessel Services Act. This act, around since the late 19th century, requires cruise ships sailing roundtrip from U.S. ports to stop in a foreign port before returning home. The act applies to ships that aren't built, owned and flagged in the U.S.; virtually all big cruise ships fall into this category.
Some small ship lines have American-built and flagged ships with American crew, and are thus able to stay completely within Alaskan waters, evading the Transport Canada ban, too. The lines that have said they will be sailing include American Cruise Lines, Lindblad, UnCruise Adventures, Alaskan Dream Cruises and the Boat Company.
The Transport Canada ban probably has erased the New England season as well for all megaships. Expect small lines such as American Cruise Lines and the schooners that belong to the Maine Windjammer Association to sail at least part of the time. One schooner, Stephen Taber, was the only cruise ship to sail in the U.S. during the pandemic. In Canada, the small St. Lawrence Cruise Line expects to resume, as it did in 2020 for four sailings.
Internationally, small ships are also able to reposition easier to other countries, should they open up quicker. Crystal Cruises has put Crystal Serenity in the Bahamas for a series of sailings around the archipelago's islands from July 2021 to October 2021. Windstar's entire 2021 season is scheduled to start outside North America.
The pandemic, too, has brought more attention to small ships from people who are looking for a more intimate vacation. Oceania's world cruise for 2023 sold out in a day, with one-third of the bookings for the 180-day journey coming from people who had never sailed the line before.
Cruise Critic's ongoing reader surveys show that 19 percent of those currently looking to book a cruise will look to book on a smaller ship. Small ship charters, too, -- where you can bring your entire bubble onboard -- are on the rise.
International Restarts, Nationality Bubbles Will Continue
It's expected that as COVID-19 cases decline in Europe, Asia and elsewhere in the world, the cruise season will reopen on a limited basis, just as it did in 2020.
Some of these sailings will take place only for certain nationalities or without ports, as the current cruises in Singapore on Quantum of the Seas are doing. Royal Caribbean has now extended Quantum's cruises to nowhere in Singapore through June 2021 and its Odyssey of the Seas cruises will be open just for Israelis. Dream Cruises is sailing in Singapore too, as well as Taiwan.
In Europe, MSC Cruises is planning to put more ships in operation from the end of April, to join MSC Grandiosa, which has been offering round-Italy ships for Italians since last summer (with a pause over the winter). The ships will offer cruises to Schengen nationals beyond Italy, to Malta and Greece. Costa Cruises will likely do the same.
The same lines that restarted last year for Germans -- AIDA and TUI – could also resume. These lines are targeting the Canary Islands as a major destination; AIDA and Hapag-Lloyd are currently operating there.
In the UK, cruises will likely be able to resume for domestic sailings beginning on May 17. Several lines, including P&O Cruises and Princess have already altered itineraries for these round-England cruises. Royal Caribbean is also eyeing a restart there.
There are hopes that river cruises could gradually restart in central Europe and Portugal, as they did last summer. Slow vaccine rollouts in the EU could shorten the season, but because of travel restrictions still on tap against Americans, lines aimed at Europeans such as A-ROSA, VIVA, Nicko and CroisiEurope will likely be the first to restart, as they were last summer.
Cruises limited to Australians, and sometimes only to people from one state, have already started Down Under. New Zealand, too, has looked at Kiwi-only cruising, although the country turned Ponant down after an initial OK.
Whether these international sailings will open to Americans is still unclear. All Americans returning to the U.S. must present proof of a negative COVID-19 test before entering, so this responsibility to give passengers access to testing will likely fall on the cruise lines.
Americans, too, are still affected by travel bans from different countries, with very few countries around the world welcoming travelers from the U.S. Australians, Brits and Canadians are being discouraged from leaving their countries as well. It's hard to tell when these internal and externals restrictions will loosen.
More CDC Guidance is Coming, But No Timeline
The real impediment to large-scale cruising in 2021 is that nearly five months after issuing its Framework for Conditional Sailing Order, the CDC is no closer to giving any guidelines to help cruise lines get ready for a restart.
The requirements to restart cruises have been hefty, involving processes and regulations that have been almost impossible for the lines to do in a timely manner. Even as airlines, hotels and other forms of travel to remain open, despite COVID-19 outbreaks, the CDC has seemed almost willfully obstructive against cruise lines.
More than 60 cruise ships have gone through the process set by the CDC to achieve "green status" for their crew, the first step in a restart. The cruise lines have also put together the health and safety guidelines and procedures to address COVID-19 prevention and containment.
Yet no technical instructions have been given to the lines to run test cruises, which the government agency is requiring as a condition to restart. Until that guidance comes, cruise lines -- and people with cruises on the books -- are in limbo.
With a timeline pending -- and so reliant on CDC action -- most cruise lines have canceled sailings through May 31, 2021, with some pausing longer. CLIA executives hope that the CDC will look more favorably on a restart once all Americans are vaccinated, which President Biden has said should happen by the end of May.
People Still Want to Cruise
What's still clear as the industry enters a year without cruising is that people miss their favorite style of vacation -- and can't wait to get back onboard.
Cruise Critic's survey of more than 2,500 readers show that 83 percent will book a future cruise. Forty percent of those readers are already looking and shopping cruises to book.
Meanwhile, the cruise lines are still reporting strong future bookings, not only for cruisers who have moved their trips from last year but also from people booking new sailings.
Finally, cruisers feel more confident about the safety of cruises when they resume than they do with measures taking place with other segments of travel, such as airplanes, hotel and all-inclusive resorts, at least among Cruise Critic readers.
On a scale of 1 to 5, 67 percent of those surveyed gave cruises a score of 4 or 5, in terms of their confidence in the cruise lines' commitment to COVID-19 safety procedures. Twenty-one percent gave cruising a 5 rating, meaning very confident.
All this points to cruising being able to rebound strongly in 2021, no matter when the ships restart -- if government agencies and the course of the pandemic allow it.