It started with a trickle, then quickly became a tidal wave of announcements that begin taking effect in September and will likely affect your next cruise.
Cruise lines have begun‘normalizing’ their COVID protocols to bring cruise travel “closer in line with the rest of society.”
These cruise line changes are chipping away at the last remaining differences between cruising and the rest of the travel industry, from relaxed vaccination requirements, to pre-cruise testing and masking.
When I heard the first announcement, three things quickly came to mind:
1. Finally! Cruise travel is on its way to no longer being an outlier in how the virus is approached, and unfairly stigmatized as being a greater risk than other group activities like air travel and concerts;
2. This is going to send cruise bookings soaring in places like the U.S. where a relatively high percentage of people aren’t vaccinated and so haven’t been able to book until now. And that’s going to drive up cruise prices and reduce availability. People who’ve been on the fence about booking a cruise should get booking! And;
3. What about people who have already booked cruises from this September onwards, thinking they were going to be sailing on a fully vaccinated ship but now have no idea who next to them is or is not vaccinated - just like going to the grocery store? Well the good news is that cruise lines aren’t dropping their guard against the virus. They still have crew health protocols, sanitization processes, and response plans in place if guests or crew do fall ill. That’s still much safer than going to the grocery store!
It’s important to note that all cruise lines – even when relaxing COVID requirements, still highly recommend full vaccination and sensible health precautions like frequent hand washing.
So What’s Happened?
Earlier this summer, as the world continued to adapt to living with the virus, the CDC folded its cruise COVID program. It had established common protocols for participating cruise lines – which included almost all American-based companies. Now cruise lines can establish their own rules that make the most sense for their guests and operations.
In August, with the world evolving, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, the parent company of sister cruise lines Norwegian, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, and Oceania, announced that, beginning 3rd September, unvaccinated guests would be permitted to sail on board its ships. Unvaccinated guests still require testing, but fully vaccinated guests no longer require any testing or pre-cruise protocols. There’s no cap on the number of unvaccinated guests permitted on board.
That started a domino effect, with sister cruise lines Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises removing their vaccination requirements for most sailings from 5th September. Guests who are not fully vaccinated can bring a negative test result to board.
And just before I published this article, Royal Caribbean Group's luxury cruise line, Silversea, updated its protocols, removing vaccine requirements and pre-embarkation testing for vaccinated travelers. Unvaccinated travelers may sail aboard Silversea ships by providing proof of a negative COVID-19 antigen or PCR test within 72 hours prior to embarkation.
Carnival Corporation, which has Carnival Cruises, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Cunard, and Seabourn under its umbrella, became the third major cruise company to update COVID protocols.
From 6th September, Holland America Line, Seabourn, Carnival Cruise Line and Princess Cruises are eliminating pre-cruise testing for vaccinated guests on cruises of about two weeks duration and less, and vaccination requirements have been lifted, though unvaccinated guests will still require a negative test to board. Meanwhile, Cunard’s vaccination policy remains unchanged, but it is dropping pre-cruise testing for the majority of its sailings.
Since that first wave of changes:
Beginning September 2nd, for sailings departing U.S. and Canadian ports, Disney Cruise Line will only require guests over 12 to be fully vaccinated. From September 23, fully vaccinated guests sailing on most Disney ships from the U.S. no longer require COVID-19 testing. Some testing protocols for unvaccinated guests, including embarkation testing, are also being relaxed.
Beginning 1st September, MSC Cruises is no longer requiring negative, pre-boarding tests for fully vaccinated American residents, and permits unvaccinated American guests with a negative test on cruises departing from U.S. ports to the Caribbean region. Non-U.S. residents must still be both fully vaccinated and have a negative test to board.
Also beginning 1st September, Lindblad Expeditions is removing its requirement for guests to be fully vaccinated plus boosted for most sailings except Antarctica. Masks will now be optional for all guests on all ships. And beginning 1st October, pre-departure and embarkation testing will be dropped.
And river cruise line Uniworld announced it would be maintaining its vaccine mandate for the remaining sailings in 2022, but that it would be removed for sailings in 2023.
The Small Print
In making these game-changing announcements, all cruise lines issued caveats.
First, COVID protocols, including vaccines and tests, may still be required for some cruise destinations, including Canada, Greece, Australia, New Zealand and Galapagos.
And all cruise lines also continue to monitor outbreaks, new waves and virus variants. If the health situation changes, like other activities and jurisdictions, cruise lines could bring some of these relaxed requirements back.
But the trend towards fully-optional, protocols-by-individual-choice for cruise travelers is now in full steam, just like it is for society as a whole.
Cruise Travel Tip
As you can see from the varied COVID protocols for many cruise lines now, and the changes that happened even as I was typing, changes to COVID protocols are cascading throughout the industry - and will likely keep changing with the times.
So if you're planning a cruise, don't take today's protocols as written in stone. Keep checking regularly as your cruise departure date approaches. to make sure you are fully prepared for current requirements. That will mean a stress-free boarding and smooth sailing!
By: Lynn Elmhirst Producer and Host, World's Greatest Cruises
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