(Caution: there’s some science and math ahead. But Norwegian solves the equation for you—and in so doing, offers a lot of hope for the future of selling cruises during a pandemic.)
Question: Is 100% really that much better than 95%?
It’s a math problem Norwegian Cruise Line has been tackling for months, and the result is a little painful.
When we set sail earlier this month on Norwegian Encore’s first post-Covid cruise to Alaska, many lamented that the strict vaccine mandate meant families with small children could not sail—a big loss for a family-friendly cruise company and its loyal customers and partners.
But that was just the first thing that made this Norwegian cruise unique. The second was that, despite Covid, hardly any of the 2,600 people onboard wore masks—including several members of Norwegian’s SailSAFE Global Health and Wellness Council and Norwegian Cruise Line president and CEO Harry Sommer and his family.
While the CDC mandates 95% vaccination rates on cruise ships, requiring 100% is the key to achieving herd immunity—and with it, a great guest experience, the medical experts said. On a ship with 2,600 passengers, a 5% infection rate would translate into 130 cases of Covid onboard—and that likely would put a dent in everyone’s vacation plans, noted Dr. Stephen Ostroff, former chief scientist and acting director of the FDA, and now a member of the SailSAFE council.
But here, “I feel comfortable not having a mask on,” Ostroff said. “It shows you what’s possible.”
To be able to sail, a cruise ship must do three things: keep the virus from getting onto the ship in the first place; minimize the opportunity for the virus to spread, if it does get onboard; and minimize the likelihood that someone will get very sick if they do catch it. The key to all three is 100% vaccination, Ostroff said.
“Being among 2,000 individuals who are fully vaccinated is probably one of the safest experiences a traveler can have these days,” he said. “We’ve come pretty close to creating a bubble.”
But if 5% of guests are not vaccinated, “the delta variant focuses like a laser on the unvaccinated. Even if there are only a small number of them, it will find them.”
(I’ll note that in my recent personal experience, it’s been hard to find a spot where there is just no Covid-19. My little town of Syosset, NY, is seeing five cases a day; my Viking Sky cruise in Iceland had a case on board; Royal Caribbean has reported seeing “one or two cases per 1,000 guests.” The story for the travel industry is not to deny that Covid is out there—but rather to spread the news that high rates of vaccination rates are keeping it from spreading.)
Almost the only people wearing masks onboard were the crew. Despite being vaccinated, Sommer said, the crew carries more of a risk of spreading the virus as they stay onboard from one trip to the next. As the prevalence falls, though, he envisions them also roaming the decks mask-free.
Plans for the Return to Cruising
At a press conference in Seattle before we sailed, NCLH president and CEO Frank Del Rio affirmed that “this is not a slogan for us; we committed that we would not start operations unless everyone onboard was vaccinated—and more and more companies are following our lead. This is the safest place on earth—and certainly the safest vacation alternative.”
Norwegian’s plan is to keep the ship at 60% capacity at least the first 30 days, then 80% for the next 30, then full operations, Del Rio said.
If all goes well and the local governments allow it, NCL hopes to begin sailing again in Australia and New Zealand in February, and in Asia by the end of January or early February 2022, Sommer said.
While nothing is 100% certain, the layers of protection on NCL ships, including hospital-grade air filtration, testing at the pier, and advanced medical care and therapeutics onboard, plus reduced capacity, combined with 100% vaccinations, make it possible “to reclaim the things that are important to us as a nation—and for many families, that includes cruising,” said Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the FDA and member of the Pfizer Board of Directors who now chairs the SailSAFE committee.
There’s also an important role to be played by travel advisors, Sommer told me in a private chat. While there has been “a dip in trade sales,” NCL believes its “trade partners have the marketing and distributions systems to generate demand”—which he thinks we will see beginning to grow by January.
“I wouldn’t push people to travel right away,” was his advice for travel advisors. “I’d like to get out the message that you can travel in a safe manner, but I’d say to focus on the first and second quarters of next year. By then, it will be much better than it is now. I don’t think there’s any benefit to rushing people back.”
Sales for Q1 2022 “are still a little slow and we’re not pushing,” he acknowledged, but “Q2 and beyond is off the charts and fantastic, far, far ahead of 2019 sales for 2020,” and prices are likely to increase 3%-5% a year.
Taming the Virus
Getting back to the science, Gottleib said that Pfizer is among a number of companies that have formulated a sort of plug-and-play vaccine that can quickly adapt to new variants, cutting down what used to be a three-to-six-month process. Now scientists can “drop a new variant into the existing manufacturing process so we can scale up in a very efficient way. I don’t think we will be in a situation where this virus evades the technology.”
Even better, “this is not a hard virus to drug. We ought to be able to get a pill,” he said.
As the corona virus evolves, it mutates at the tip of the spike protein—but if it changes too much it will not attach to our cells. “A lot of people feel the virus will not continue to mutate at this rate; I don’t think it will suddenly shift in a dramatic fashion,” Gottleib said.
Perhaps the best news is that “we have entered the age of fully synthetic vaccines,” where scientists could one day use mRNA technology to co-formulate the covid and flu vaccines—so a single shot will offer immunity for all variants of covid and the flu. It was Pfizer’s research into using mRNA for a single vaccine that would protect against all the flu variants that enabled it to develop the covid vaccine so quickly. “If Covid had come along four years ago, we would never have been able to do this—and four years from now, it will be mainstream,” he said.
Part of the Herd
“It’s a sacrifice not to have any kids on this ship,” Gottleib acknowledged. “I hope that will change later this year, when vaccines become available” to younger children.
Still, said Sommer, Norwegian’s goal is for that to be the only sacrifice guests have to make. While its ships have not been sailing, the company has been tweaking and spiffing up the ship’s amenities and its menus, and stands ready to deliver “an onboard experience that really represents what the experience was like back in March.”
It’s not quite there yet. On this very first voyage some passengers were annoyed at the glitches, from a two-hour checkin due to testing at the pier for the first time, to running out of bananas on the last day due to supply chain issues. And Kinky Boots won’t be up and running until September. One first-time cruiser told me she would never cruise again, it’s too much of a hassle. But a New Yorker traveling with her travel advisor is ready to give it another try; the two already have booked Encore to Alaska for next year. As in all vacations in the time of global pandemic, cruisers need to be informed and ready to go with the flow.
Above all, Gottleib said, “100% vaccination ought to be the standard for cruise ships, plain and simple.”
Cheryl’s 40-year career in journalism is bookended by roles in the travel industry, including Executive Editor of Business Travel News in the 1990s, and recently, Editor in Chief of Travel Market Report and admin of Cheryl Rosen’s Group for Travel Professionals, a news and support group on Facebook.
As an independent contractor since retiring from the 9-to-5 to travel more, she has written regular articles about the life and business of travel agents for Luxury Travel Advisor, Travel Agent and Insider Travel Report. She also writes and edits for professional publications in the financial services, business and technology sectors.