Whether to accept unvaxed guests onboard has been resolved in the luxury and premium cruise ship markets. Anyone who refuses to be fully vaxed has very few high-end ships from which to choose. These cruise lines’ primary market, prosperous seniors over 65, have voted overwhelmingly with their credit cards to vaccinate everyone.
Here is The New York Times map of those who are fully vaxed in the United States. These data are as of June 18, 2021. The darker shades of green indicate more county residents are fully vaccinated.
If you click here, the map becomes interactive and shows each county’s statistics for different age ranges. Browse around the United States, and you get a picture that the media doesn’t usually reflect. In Contra Costa County, California, which includes one of the most multi-ethnic cities in the U.S. (Oakland), 86% of the seniors over 65 are already fully vaccinated. By anyone’s standards, they have probably established “herd immunity” within their communities. If they cruise with like-minded seniors, they will create the “bubble of protection” that the ships have sought for nearly two years. There are counties like Contra Costa in many states in which at least 80% of the seniors are already vaxed. But how do we know whether they are likely to cruise?
Now, look at the map below of projected median household incomes from the US Bureau of the Census. Notice the similarities between the two maps. Were it not for the titles, it would be hard to tell which is which?
If you view the U.S. Census map of median household incomes in the United States, it is very similar to the one showing vaccinations rates. Both maps are also similar to maps of counties in which at least 70% of adults have completed at least two years of college.
Because of the strong link between immunizations, family wealth, and education, the luxury and premium cruise lines have everything to gain and nothing to lose by hosting only vaccinated guests. As evidenced by Oakland, the cruises could be as ethnically and racially diverse as they are now. Those whose family incomes is less than $60,000 a year, and have not completed at least two years of college, are an unlikely candidate for spending close to $1000 a day (including air) per couple on a premium or luxury cruise.
For the resort ship lines, which compete primarily on price (“$78 a Day for a Luxury Caribbean Cruise!”) and on catering to multigenerational families, it’s a different story. They have the problem of how to keep passengers safe, while remaining solvent. They need families earning less than $60,000 a year, and family groups that include kids under 12, to fill their ships. They have embraced rapid COVID tests that can be inexpensively administered onboard or taken at home.
But they will still have to face the problems of whether they should require everyone to mask indoors and practice social distancing, or should they require these precautions only for those guests who are not vaxed. No matter which way they go, they’re likely to encounter situations onboard that makes what has happened on the airlines look like a church picnic. Unlike the airlines, cruise ships can’t cut off liquor for the entire trip.
The CDC has officially stated that anyone who is unvaxed doesn’t belong on a cruise ship. They consider unvaxed cruising to be a Level 4 event, which is their most serious warning. The chances of the unvaxed becoming infected is too great, especially with the new Delta Variant’s spread rate. It is ten times greater than what we experienced last year and some CDC officials have referred to it as “COVID on steroids.” It’s more dangerous for younger adults and children, who often suffered no symptoms from the original virus.
In the past several weeks, COVID outbreaks have occurred on some of the first ships to cruise this spring, including Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of the Seas, Celebrity’s Millennium, and the MSC Seaside. This happened despite the multimillion-dollar engineering changes, training programs, and supposedly everyone being vaccinated on the first two of these ships. The saving grace was that probably because so many guests and crew were vaccinated, no one died or had to be hospitalized for more than a few days. If more unvaxed people had been on board, this might have been a more tragic story.
Cruise Line Policies For Sailing With Unvaccinated Guests
The four major mass-market cruise lines have adopted different strategies for dealing with this problem. As new COVID events and the political winds shift, these policies sometimes seem to be modified daily. Here are summaries of the mass-market line’s policies, effective June 19.
- Norwegian Cruise Lines has adopted the most consistent strategy. Everyone must be vaccinated, no matter which NCL ship you travel on (Norwegian, Oceania, Regent). This strategy indicates NCL is playing the long game. Norwegian may turn away more customers than some of its competitors, such as families with young children. Still, they are much less likely to have guests become seriously ill or have to cancel cruises themselves, as Royal Caribbean did for a month with the Odyssey of the Seas.
- MSC permits unvaxed passengers, but tests them frequently. It also insists that any guest that is unvaxed buy COVID medical and evacuation insurance. It doesn’t have any cruises that start in the US, and are subject to CDC regulations.
- Royal Caribbean has said that unvaxed guests must wear masks when they’re anywhere indoors except in their cabins, sit separately in restaurants and lounges, and are not permitted to leave the ship except on guided shore excursions. At the same time, Royal Caribbean is trying to weaken the 95% vaccinated rule by opting to use contrived “trial cruises” to get around it. On their first trial cruise this week, on the Freedom of the Seas, the 600 “guests” will be RCCL employees that are all vaccinated. What will this prove when the ship typically carries 3,436 guests, for whom RCCL is seeking permission for them to be unvaccinated? On the more costly Celebrity and Silversea brands, the policy states everyone must be vaccinated.
- Carnival is adhering to the CDC guidelines but saying that they will make some exceptions for young children and others. Carnival says nothing about exceptions on their higher-priced lines (Holland-America, Princess, Cunard, Seabourn). They haven’t published their precautions for unvaxed passengers, but they will likely be very close to Royal Caribbean’s.
Will Virtual Vaccination Certificates Be Used to Prove Claims Guests Are Vaccinated
New York and California are now issuing “Virtual Vaccine ID Certificates.” These are used in airports, cruise terminals, entertainment venues, and hotels so that guests can use their smartphones to quickly prove that they are vaccinated. These can’t be called “vaccine passports,” because the federal government hasn’t issued them.
Once businesses start to see the time and money they save, virtual vaccination ID certificates will become part of the travel landscape. It should only be a matter of months before they are available to residents of every state. IBM developed the New York Empire Pass, and they have announced their willingness to provide them everywhere. The European Union has issued their version of vaccine passports. Americans who plan to travel to Europe in the future may be able to use them.
Florida and Texas have passed laws that make cruise ships face penalties if they request proof of vaccination. Hopefully, the CDC and the states will quickly resolve this dispute, before many 2021 cruises must be cancelled.
If cruise lines capitulate, and lives are lost due to unvaxed guests spreading the disease, large-ship cruising could end for even longer. Also, without the assurance that premium and luxury ships will sail only with vaccinated people on board, the cruise lines could face many cancellations from their highest-paying clients. This would result in everyone’s income being badly reduced for another year.
If the vaccine issues are not resolved quickly, the most straightforward solution is for every cruise line to adopt the CDC recommendation that 95% of the guests must be fully vaccinated. The “trial cruise” option would be eliminated since it doesn’t prove anything. The cruise lines could leave it to the national networks of travel advisors and travel suppliers to transmit verifications to the cruise lines. Each ship could also do a follow-up verification as soon as they leave Florida or Texas waters.
By fall, all children of at least three-years-old will likely be able to be vaccinated. The only remaining exceptions to the 95% rule will be guests that can submit documentation from a physician that they cannot be vaccinated, or from a religious leader that their faith does not permit any vaccinations. If these exceptions were also subject to the precautions the CDC recommends for unvaxed guests, even fewer would sail.
Another solution is to dust off the plans to start and end all cruises in ports other than in Florida and Texas. The premium-priced and luxury lines don’t often use these ports, but a shift of the resort ships could wreak many businesses in Florida and Texas. The ports in San Juan, New Orleans, Baltimore, and New York City should easily accommodate these ships.
Weakening proof of vaccinations could do real harm. The past few months have demonstrated that COVID-19 can emerge at any time, even with changes in ventilation systems and improved safety protocols. We may not be able to stomp out COVID-19 on cruise ships immediately, but we can make the outbreaks more benign by fully vaccinating everyone before they sail.
Dr. Steve Frankel and his wife have cruised on most of the Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, Azamara, Oceania, Regent, and Windstar ships. He writes a weekly column, Point-to-Point, for Travel Research Online (TRO) that’s read by more than 80,000 travel advisors and industry leaders. Steve is the founder of Cruises & Cameras Travel Services, LLC. He has been recognized as a “2021 Top Travel Specialist” by Conde Nast Traveler magazine and a “Travel Expert Select “by the Signature Travel Network. His specialties are luxury small-ship cruises and COVID-19 safety measures, and has a doctorate in Educational Research with minors in Marketing and Quantitative Business Analysis. He’s also earned a Certificate in Epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University. Previously, he managed qualitative and quantitative research in the private & public sectors. He’s a member of the Los Angeles Press Club, and has written 13 books and hundreds of articles. His email address is email@example.com.