With the European Union opening up to vaccinated Americans travelers, cruisers are eagerly wondering if their river and ocean cruises on the Continent will go ahead as scheduled for summer 2021 -- or even if more of their favorite lines will decide to base their ships out of international ports.
The move, which was adopted May 19 and is expected to be finalized on May 21 between the EU's 27-member states, is not a blanket reopening and comes with many questions. Countries within the EU have the right to decide that they want to keep their borders closed, for example, which is likely to happen during COVID-19 spikes. The countries can also issue quarantines that would make cruising untenable, or even refuse to open up their ports.
Add in the fact that vaccine certificates for travel, while widely discussed in the EU as a measure to facilitate movement between countries, have not been put forward on a national level in the United States. Finally, infection rates in many European countries remain high, as vaccinations lag and variants spread. The U.S. State Department currently has travel warnings for much of the world, including Europe.
Still, it's an exciting move forward; travel for Americans to Europe has been essentially banned for over a year, with the exception of a few countries. Vaccination rates in the U.S. continue to lead much of the world, and many cruise lines are already requiring vaccines for people to sail.
While it's still early to know exactly how European ocean and river cruises will be impacted by the decision, here are some potential scenarios for summer 2021 that are starting to emerge..
More Ports Opening, More Ships Deployed?
Some countries within the EU, especially those that rely on tourism, had already decided to open cruising for vaccinated Americans. Most notably, Greece is open for vaccinated international tourists, and at least 11 cruise lines will be cruising in the region this summer. Cyprus has been gearing up to serve as a homeport for vaccinated travelers as well.
Other Mediterranean countries have been accepting travelers throughout the pandemic, although not necessarily Americans. Malta has already been a destination for MSC Cruises, carrying Italian and Schengen country tourists; it is serving as a homeport for Viking this summer on several itineraries. Croatia has been open to travelers off and on since summer 2020.
The EU's announcement, though, leaves the door open for popular tourist countries such as France, Spain and Italy to allow Americans to visit. Having the Western Mediterranean available as a cruise itinerary for summer 2021 would be a huge win for the industry, as the cruise lines still don't have definite dates for restarting from U.S. homeports.
Several cruise lines have signaled their intent to sail from these countries, albeit within a later timeframe. Norwegian Cruise Lines has announced that two of its biggest ships, Norwegian Epic and Norwegian Getaway, will sail from Barcelona and Rome (Civitavecchia) beginning in September.
On April 26 Spain's secretary of state for tourism, Fernando Valdes, said his government was working closely with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Transport on approving cruise ship protocols to allow for the resumption of cruising this summer. Ships have been operating in the Canary Islands since October.
MSC had already put French and Spanish ports such as Marseilles and Barcelona on several summer itineraries, pending government approval. French President Emmanuel Macron has announced plans for France to open to American tourists who are vaccinated or have a negative COVID-19 test on June 9.
When plans for the EU to open were first announced, the industry mood was optimistic, particularly from cruise lines who have already planned to start outside the United States.
"All signs point to this being a positive development for American travelers," Executive Vice President of Marketing for Viking Richard Marnell said.
MSC Cruises said that while its sailings in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe will technically be open to non-Schengen guests in July, whether Americans can board will depend on travel restrictions imposed by the different governments. "As soon as the authorities allow for other countries to travel into Europe, we will align accordingly," the line told Cruise Critic.
Still, with cruise lines already moving ships to new international homeports for 2021, don't be surprised if more ocean ships are sent to Europe for summer 2021, if the U.S. cruise shutdown continues. Viking, for one, seems to be going that route.
"We are also planning to announce additional 2021 'Welcome Back' voyages in other popular destinations in the coming weeks," Marnell said.
River Cruising A Go?
River cruise lines are another winner from an European reopening. While several river ships sailed in summer 2020, the numbers were drastically reduced because Americans are generally the sector's largest market.
But river cruising could also remain complicated, particularly because many of the most popular itineraries travel through multiple countries. Vaccination rollout remains an issue in many European countries as well, and many parts of Europe are undergoing a deadly third wave.
Germany, which is a hallmark of both Rhine and Danube river itineraries, has been generally cautious with tourism and traveling during the pandemic. Restrictions have been getting tighter, not looser, during the current wave. Tourism in Austria, where most Danube itineraries travel, is opening May 19, but the U.S. is not currently on the list of countries whose residents can avoid a quarantine..
Still, countries that rely on tourism have been pushing the EU to come to this point. Spain has been an advocate, as has Italy and Portugal; the latter is the home of the popular Douro River cruises.
Avalon Waterways had already put a vaccine requirement into place (or a negative COVID test or proof of antibodies) for its 2021 river cruises.
"Avalon is prepared and eager to resume operations in Europe this summer, and we’re beyond excited about the encouraging news from the EU to open to vaccinated Americans," AvalonManaging Director Pam Hoffee told Cruise Critic via email. "Our advance bookings have been exceptional, which is a strong indicator that our travelers are ready to get back onto Europe’s rivers with us."
Marnell of Viking sounded bullish on summer 2021 river cruises too. "We look forward to operating regularly scheduled river and ocean sailings in Europe as soon as possible."
Jennifer Tombaugh, President of Tauck, told Cruise Critic: "Of course the details are extremely vague right now, but we're gearing up for summer in Europe.
"I can tell you that our guests are bombarding us daily saying, 'I'm vaccinated! Where can I go?"
The line is hoping for a mid-May announcement from Macron, which would allow Tauck to salvage at least part of the summer season as the line needs 60 days to get each ship ready for service, she added.
Chris Townson, Managing Director of Uniworld in the U.K., said he was "very confident" about welcoming U.S. passengers onboard this summer.
"We’re ready to go as soon as borders open up, and it’s obviously great news that the EU will be open to U.S. travelers with EMA-approved vaccines.
"The pace of the vaccine roll out in the U.S. and U.K. means that we would expect travelers from those countries to be able to join us first. There are obviously still some uncertainties in play but we're very confident about welcoming guests back to Europe this summer."
The line has a number of new "Super Ships" launching this year, in Portugal and Italy; as well as its inaugural Cruise and Rail program.
"We are very encouraged by the news from the European Commission and we are seeking further information before announcing a definitive restart date of selected cruises within the EU," said Rudi Schreiner, President of AmaWaterways.
"As many of our river cruise itineraries pass through multiple countries, there is still clarification needed from each member state but this is definitely a long awaited first step in the right direction.
"Having successfully operated river cruises during summer 2020, our teams are experienced with health and safety protocols and are ready with three to four weeks’ notice to safely resume enjoyable river cruises for our guests that meet the EU entry requirements."
Cruise Critic Members Excited, Have Questions
On Cruise Critic's message boards, the news was greeted with enthusiasm, although with the usual caution that more specifics were needed before people could make definite plans.
For many, the vaccine requirement is not an issue, as they have either been vaccinated already or have plans to; in surveys, 85 percent of Cruise Critic readers have said that they would cruise if vaccines were required.
"This is good news. Waiting for the date of opening," NMTraveller wrote on the Celebrity message board.
"This gives a big bright ray of hope to those whom have European vacations, including cruises, planned for 2021! Time will tell how this plays out from a cruise perspective, but it is a step in the right direction!" AtlantaCruiser72 wrote on the Holland America board.
Others noted that during 2021, it pays to check the fine print -- and realize that things can change drastically, depending on how different countries are managing the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Flexibility and patience will be the name of the game. Some countries may be open. Some may close from time to time. Tourist attractions, restaurants, shops may not be open fully or may be closed entirely," harkinmr wrote on the Norwegian Cruise Line message board.
"As others have suggested, just keep checking your countries of interest and go with an acceptance that things may change even when you're there. It's just a function of the times we're living in."