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A Year of No Cruising: The Cruise Changes That Have Taken Place Since COVID-19 Began

Executive Editor, U.S.
Chris Gray Faust

Feb 19, 2021

Read time
8 min read

It's been nearly a year since global pandemic forced everyday life to radically change -- and nowhere has the sea change been felt more than in the cruise industry.

Since March 13, 2020, the cruise industry has been mostly shut down, at least in North America, where the vacation is most popular. The pandemic has forced cruising, as with many industries, to come up with new and innovative ways to make travel safer and healthier going forward.

To date, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has lagged on giving cruise lines the technical guidance for the industry to restart sailing in North America. Most cruise lines have canceled sailings through April 2021, and some even longer.

But that doesn't mean the cruise industry has been passively waiting for the go-ahead. Even though there has been no cruising in the United States over the past year, we've seen plenty of action, as the cruise lines marshaled nationally renowned health and safety experts to come up with onboard and onshore best practices, for restart. Cruise lines also sailed with these new protocols in regions with low infection rates and spent the better part of the year repatriating crew around the world.

Here are some milestones from the past year, as the cruise lines and the world cope with the new COVID-19-era normal.

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Successful (and Unsuccessful) Restarts

While cruising has been on a continual pause in North America since the CDC issued its first "no sail" order in March 2020, the industry has restarted in other areas of the world, with success (and a few failures).

Almost all restarts were limited in nationality, coupled with a renewed focus on health and safety. Precautions that people were taking on land, such as mask wearing and social distancing, were seen as crucial components -- yet testing remained spotty.

Norway was the first country where sailing resumed, in June 2020. Hurtigruten claimed the title of being the first ocean line to get its ships back in the water, although the line was forced to abandon its season two months later after a COVID-19 outbreak. Still, Norway did see a successful summer for SeaDream Yacht Club, which moved both of its ships to its homeland.

Other ships and lines that came back over the summer included Dream Cruises in Taiwan; Paul Gauguin in Tahiti and French Polynesia; Ponant in France; Variety in Greece; TUI in Germany and river cruises for certain nationalities on the Danube, Douro and Rhine.

The health and safety protocols on these lines coming back into service varied greatly. While most required masks and social distancing, the testing requirements were generally all over the place. Ponant, for example, required written proof from a lab of a negative COVID-19 test for boarding, taken within 48 hours. French Polynesia had even more stringent requirements for tourists, with tests required not just before entering the country, but a few days after as well.

With a few exceptions, these sailings proceeded without outbreaks, primarily due to the lower rate of infection in those countries during the summer months. When passengers did test positive, the ships usually went into lockdown, putting passengers into quarantine. In some circumstances, false positives emerged; UnCruise in Alaska lost its entire season due to a false positive COVID-19 test, for example.

When infections began to rise in late fall, many of these lines were forced to stop their seasons early, as destinations closed their borders. Germany and France, for example, canceled their popular Christmas Markets, killing those seasonal sailings.

Cruise Changes with Testing and On Shore

The biggest restart splash came from MSC Cruises, which ended up setting a standard for an industry finding its footing in the new normal.

In August 2020, the Italian cruise line issued a wide range of safety and health protocols that, at the time, seemed extremely strict. Passengers would be required to take a rapid COVID-19 antigen test at the terminal before boarding. Anyone who turned up positive would then take another PCR test. The Italian government also required another COVID-19 test onboard, when the ship returned to the country from other destinations such as Greece and Malta.

MSC also introduced widespread contact tracing through the MSC and Me wristband. If a passenger fell ill onboard, they would be immediately isolated and the line would be able to identify the other guests who had been exposed, through the wearable technology. Passengers who did contact COVID-19 were sent to shoreside medical facilities at the next port, ensuring the cruise could continue for those not affected.

One move that garnered the most raised eyebrows is the line's decision to restrict time in port to ship-sponsored shore excursions. The policy was designed to not only keep guests in a cruise-controlled bubble -- where passengers, their guides and drivers all had negative COVID-19 tests -- but also to protect people on shore from passengers. (Although some cynics noted it also kept shore excursion profits with the cruise line, as opposed to independent operators.)

MSC said it would uphold its safety measures vigorously, and the cruise line proved that point early on, when it refused reboarding to passengers who left their ship-sponsored shore excursion. Cruisers watching the restart applauded the line's strict measures, which quickly became adopted by other major European cruise lines, including two owned by Carnival Corporation: Costa Cruises and AIDA.

The industry learned, though, that testing by itself could not keep COVID-19 at bay. Even though it had sailed successfully for months in Norway, SeaDream Yacht Club was forced to abandon its Caribbean fall and winter season after COVID-19 emerged from American passengers, even after a double-testing regimen. That line, which had originally eschewed masks, served as a cautionary tale that even the most lauded precautions can result in positive cases.

Cruise Changes Onboard

The onboard experience also changed on these first ships back. While some believed the buffet might be dead, it re-emerged as a station concept, where passengers pointed out what they wanted to servers in masks and gloves.

Dining also changed, in terms of logistics. Most larger cruise ships went to a reservation system to eradicate long line-ups. Tables were restricted to the group that you boarded with, as opposed to dining with strangers. Passengers wore masks into the dining room as well as other public spaces, taking them off only after they sat down to eat.

Entertainment, too, underwent changes. Shows were timed, with capacity controls and required reservations. Masks were still required in public places, except when eating or drinking. Even hot tubs and pools were capacity controlled.

Royal Caribbean incorporated many of these protocols when it resumed its sailings in Singapore in December, on Quantum of the Seas. The cruises, which required the testing and contact tracing that has become the new norm, were limited in capacity and also nationality; the sailings also didn't stop in ports.

Some changes have been for the better. Royal Caribbean used the pandemic as an opportunity to make its muster drill an electronic process, solving a pain point that had existed long before COVID-19.

Industry Cooperation on Health and Safety

As restarts took place in Europe and Asia, the cruise industry in the United States came together to develop a series of best practices to present to the CDC to get sailings in North America back on track.

The Healthy Sail panel, put together as a joint venture by Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, issued a report with 74 recommendations in September 2020. Many were similar to the successful protocols seen in Europe, with some noticeable differences. (COVID-19 tests could take place as long as 72 hours before boarding, for example.)

The industry's lobbying group, Cruise Lines International Association, quickly signed on to the Healthy Sail recommendations, urging the CDC to lift the "no sail" order, which had been instituted on North American lines in March 2020. The agency extended the order several times in 2020, although the lines themselves did the bulk of their cancellations, generally operating a month or two in advance.

"We have great confidence in the comprehensive and layered approach our health and safety panel has put forward," NCLH Chairman Frank Del Rio said at the time. "That's why we're going to have a phased approach, we're going to test it, we're going to make adjustments along the way ... so that we can get back to what we do best."

Cruise Lines Spend Months in Limbo

The government agency never directly responded to the cruise lines, though. Instead, on October 30, 2020, the CDC replaced the No Sail order with one called a "framework for conditional sailing." This framework remains in effect November 1, 2021.

Ostensibly, the move seemed like progress. In reality, the document spelled out a list of complicated tasks and procedures that the cruise lines must do before even beginning to offer revenue cruises, including test cruises with volunteers, a color-coded certification process and more.

The idea of test cruises took hold with the public; more than 100,000 people signed up with Royal Caribbean in a week. Yet the lines have been unable to proceed, as the CDC has yet to issue the "technical instructions" needed to make that happen.

In early February 2021, the CDC said these technical instructions would be released in a "few weeks." Meanwhile, cruise lines keep extending their cancellations as they wait. Most have paused sailing operations through May 31, 2021, although the delays from the CDC mean those dates could continue to be pushed out.

At this point, the lines continue to do what they can, making improvements with testing and safety for crew so they can move their ships to "green" status for readiness. More than 60 ships have achieved this status.

As vaccines are rolled out worldwide, several lines have said that they would like crew, passengers or both to have taken the shots before sailings resume. Many cruise lines are loath to unveil final health and safety policies, as the pandemic as a whole continue to evolve.

One thing is for sure: The industry never expected the COVID-19 pandemic to last as long as it has. That reflects society as a whole; who knew in March 2020 that our lives would change so much, in so many ways?

Even though cruising has born a heavier burden, with more requirements for restart than other aspects of travel, the past year has been one where competitors have come together with the common goal of returning safer and better than before.

Updated February 19, 2021
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