When the feds removed COVID testing before embarkation regulations a few months ago, most travel advisors and cruise execs cheered. Bookings exploded—in some cases exceeding pre-pandemic levels—and some stock analysts saw relief from the vast debt the Big Three has amassed.
On September 22, Jack Stebbins reported on CNBC that total debt was 35 billion for Carnival, 25 billion for Royal Caribbean, and 14 billion for Norwegian. This is much less than their stock values that day, which were $11.01 billion, 11.18 billion, and 5.61 billion, respectively—less than half of what the companies owed. The article said that the cruise lines’ best hope is the luxury cruise market, which is not as sensitive to economic downturns. This luxury market is centered on “small ships,” with fewer than 1300 guests.
I just returned from a “Fall Foliage Cruise” on the Seabourn Quest—a quintessential small ship—from New York City to Montreal. Of the roughly 350 guests onboard, only a few appeared to be under 50, and I saw no children or teens onboard. The guests seemed to be the usual mix of retirees and small business owners found on the small ships of Seabourn, Silversea, Regent, Oceania, and Viking Ocean. Many guests were avid cruisers already booked on several voyages during the next two years.
Having been on more than forty small ship cruises in the past 20 years, my wife and I were eager to explore how our favorite mode of travel had recently changed. While the ship and the service were much like we remembered them, some things we saw were disturbing.
Per the new US and Canadian regulations, while proof of vaccinations was demanded of every guest at embarkation, no one was requested to test for COVID before coming onboard the ship, if they were vaxed. The implication was: If you were fully vaccinated, you were safe to be around other guests and crew members, with masking strictly optional.
Once onboard, COVID tests were neither offered nor suggested; no instructions were provided for what to do if you suspected you were exposed to COVID. Since few wanted to risk being put off the ship or confined to their cabins if they tested positive, the matter was rarely raised among fellow guests.
On the third day, we noticed crew members dressed head-to-toe in our hallway in protective medical gear. They entered specific staterooms that had food trays outside the door, heavily wrapped in plastic. As the voyage progressed, these cabins increased until they included one stateroom, only two doors away from ours. No announcements were made of the availability of tests, medications, or reimbursements if COVID was suspected. Meanwhile, guests proceeded ashore at every port stop without suggestions on protecting the locals or preventing infections of guests, vendors, and guides.
By the end of the cruise, hacking coughs were heard around the ship, and many feared they had been infected. We flew home to LAX the following evening, and by morning—two days after leaving the ship—I tested positive. My wife tested positive 48 hours later. Two friends who had traveled with us on the cruise also came down with COVID.
My wife and I had been vaccinated twice and received three boosters. When we saw what was happening in our hallway with the fully garbed medical personnel, we started dining at tables for two and sitting by ourselves in lectures and entertainment events.
Since cruise lines and health authorities are no longer collecting and reporting COVID data for every ship (unlike ships stopping in Australian ports), we may never learn how many guests and crew members were infected during the cruise. A critical issue is whether we risk cruising in Australia on the Viking Mars in March and doing an Atlantic crossing on the new Regent Grandeur in November.
For me, at least, this isn’t a trivial issue since at 79 I’ve already survived heart disease, multiple strokes, diabetes, and now COVID. Should I roll the dice again? What about some of my elderly counterparts who’ve survived even more severe health problems and caught COVID on a recent cruise?
Given the docs from ships sailing in some regions such as Australia and New Zealand, where reporting of COVID outbreaks is still required, we know of ships where more than 10% of the people on board are infected. We also know that when the US stopped reporting COVID outbreaks, no vessel was entirely free of COVID cases. Now, the situation could be worse with no prescreening via COVID tests.
These facts suggest that some small ship brands can gain considerable sales advantages by restarting pier-side testing of all guests at embarkation and instituting similar safeguards for the vessel crew. This will likely increase the popularity of cruises wherever most registered guests are seniors. The small ships that carry no more than 1300 guests are the best examples.
As it now stands, many of those who have now sailed on ships with COVID outbreaks may be unwilling to sign up for a second cruise, even if their plans called for taking two or more cruises each year. Many will decide that cruises are no longer worth the risk unless some of these factors are mitigated.
“Senior-Safer” policies should be considered on the small ship cruise lines that cater to seniors. They include the Seabourn brand on Carnival, the Silversea and Hapag-Lloyd brands on Royal Caribbean, and the Regent and Oceania brands on Norwegian. The seniors patronizing these brands tend to be opportunistic cruisers: Rather than staying loyal to a brand, they choose among a few on which they have had great cruises, booking the ones that best fit their needs at the time.
Since “safety” has replaced “cheap” as the magic word for seniors booking small ships, it would be surprising if Senior-Safer policies wouldn’t increase bookings substantially as word of the present round of COVID outbreaks spread.
Possible Safety Measures that Could Be Adopted on “Senior-Safer” Brands
Older guests are likely to be stricken with COVID at greater rates than their younger counterparts and have more severe consequences of infection. The more severe outcomes may be because many are immunocompromised from diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and other risk factors. This leads to seniors welcoming many COVID-19 mitigations.
Doing away with pre-cruise testing at embarkation benefits only a handful on the small ships. Even these gains may be erased as guests learn they may now be in more peril than before the guidelines changed. The small ship brands with large numbers of elderly guests could quickly bring back the embarkation tests and be broadly praised for their efforts.
If guests fear they have been infected, they face the choice of going to the ship’s medical office for viral testing or ignoring the symptoms until they get home. Since the most common medication, Paxlovid, should be started within five days of symptoms emerging, guests can be faced with the choice of identifying themselves as infected with COVID and facing restrictions on their shipboard activities if they indeed have COVID; or possibly infecting others and worsening their medical outcomes if they don’t seek diagnosis and treatment.
Once a cruise starts, if guests test positive, they should be given the choice of being restricted to their staterooms for the required times or returning home early with any additional expenses covered by the cruise line. In cases where they opt to stay on board, they could receive compensation for any days when their activities are curtailed.
Neither cruisers nor health authorities should tolerate a situation where no one knows the outcomes of health policies. Regulations are needed to disclose COVID infections resulting from every cruise. This can be done automatically by accessing manifests from every cruise ten days after travel concludes, asking guests online whether they were diagnosed with COVID or had any symptoms.
This could be done with anonymous responses solicited by email or electronic messaging. Results would be provided in real-time to ships, cruise lines, and health authorities; and aggregated for federal reports and news sources monthly. The procedures could be field-tested on small ships catering to US seniors. If the results prove helpful, the program could be expanded to vessels with many guests with US passports.
Dr. Steve Frankel and his wife have cruised on most of the Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, Azamara, Oceania, Regent, and Windstar ships. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.