(3:15 p.m. EST) -- Cruise lines and industry officials are reacting to the new voluntary regulations set forth late Wednesday evening by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which signaled it still considers cruising a high-risk activity despite having the most stringent protocols of any segment of the U.S.-based travel industry.
The new guidance -- which includes the creation of three new categories of "vaccinated cruises," along with testing, reporting and isolation requirements that extend far beyond anything required on land by the CDC or local health agencies -- has drawn the ire of industry officials and cruise operators, who have committed to working with the CDC on the safe resumption of cruising for the past two years, first through the No-Sail Order, then through the Conditional Sail Order, which the agency retired in January.
What was expected to be a soft transition into guidance similar to that from the Conditional Sail Order has morphed into what some are calling heavy-handed guidance that has surprised most industry watchers.
"Our first read is that the voluntary program is far more confusing to lines and consumers than even the previous guidelines at a time when restrictions are being reduced everywhere else as cases drop," Laziza Lambert, director of communications for the Cruise Lines International Association, told Crise Critic.
"All of this seems unmerited and unnecessary for an industry that is already one of the most highly regulated and has continued to be so even after the expiration of the CSO on January 15."
The CDC has doubled-down on its warnings against taking a cruise, despite the fact the industry is the only one within the United States to require the vaccination of nearly all passengers along with precruise COVID-19 testing, reduced capacity limits and masking in most areas of the vessel.
"It is inexplicable why cruise would continue to be categorized at a Level 4 Travel Health Notice, which in theory discourages people from cruising even if they are up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines," Lambert told Cruise Critic. "This discounts the importance of what the CDC has otherwise promoted as the single most important touchstone for public health and safety and is counter to what hard data shows as the cruise industry's effectiveness unmatched by virtually any other commercial setting."
Analysis conducted by the Finnish-based PBI Research Institute showed hospitalizations on cruise ships were 80 times lower than on land in the U.S. at the height of the omicron surge.
Between December 30, 2021, and January 12, 2022, only five cruise passengers were hospitalized out of more than 416,000 passengers carried, equivalent to 34 per 100,000 positive cases of COVID-19. During the same period, the U.S. saw 269,067 hospitalizations on land, according to data provided by PBI and CLIA. The rate of on-land hospitalization during the reflected time period was 2,786 people per 100,000 positive cases.
For their part, cruise lines are largely staying silent on the CDC's new voluntary regulations program. So far, only one cruise company -- Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, parent company of Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas -- had committed to joining the CDC's voluntary program.
The CDC's guidance had not yet been released when Norwegian announced their participation. Since the announcement, NCLH has said it is evaluating the current guidance.
"We are aware that the CDC has posted its COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships Operating in U.S. Waters, the agency's voluntary COVID-19 risk mitigation program for foreign-flagged cruise ships operating in U.S. waters which replaces the agency's Conditional Sail Order which expired on January 15," an NCLH spokesperson told Cruise Critic in a written statement. "
"We are currently reviewing the requirements of the Program. The health and safety of our guests, crew and communities we serve remains our number one priority and we continue to believe that while the virus remains prevalent in our communities that cruising with all eligible guests and crew fully vaccinated and with universal testing provides a level of protection unparalleled in the travel industry."
Contacted Thursday morning, Carnival Corporation had much the same to say, commenting that it was reviewing the CDC's new protocols and had not yet decided about whether to join the program. Carnival Corporation's brands, like Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, have been operating successfully under strict health and safety protocols since restarting passenger operations last summer and have continued to do so since the CDC's Conditional Sail Order expired January 15.
"We have created an onboard environment in which virtually everyone on board is vaccinated, has shown proof of a negative COVID test and is wearing a mask in indoor places where people congregate," a Carnival Corporation spokesperson told Cruise Critic.
"These protocols, among others, have helped us become among the safest forms of socializing and travel, with far lower incidence rates than on land. In fact, we have safely sailed over 1.2 million guests and counting in the best interest of public health -- while delivering great and often long-awaited vacations for our guests. In turn, our guests are reporting historically high guest satisfaction scores. Our guests feel safe and they are having a wonderful time.
"In light of our highly effective protocols, we are disappointed that the CDC, with its latest travel health notice, continues to treat the cruise industry differently than other sectors, nor does the CDC's notice account for the cruise industry's stringent and enhanced health and safety protocols.
"Ultimately, we must always be in compliance, and we will continue to follow the science and comply with guidelines from global government and health authorities, including CDC.
"We, like the rest of the cruise industry, will evaluate whether to participate in the voluntary CDC program after further valuation and discussion. As we have learned during this pandemic, the situation constantly evolves, and we will continue to be well-prepared to comply and adjust to changing circumstances while serving the best interest of public health."
Cruise Critic will update this article with more information as it becomes available.