Vaxxed or unvaxxed? That's the decision that many cruisers will be making as ships return to U.S. waters in summer 2021.
While many cruise lines have already mandated blanket COVID-19 vaccination requirements fleetwide, that strategy may not work for all operators. What is starting to evolve is that some lines, particularly those that cater to families, are going down a route where some ships and itineraries will carry a passenger vaccine requirement – and some will not.
The decision tree stems from a choice that the lines were given by the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) for resumption of service. If lines require 95 percent of passengers and 95 percent of the crew to be vaccinated, they can bypass a lengthier test cruise process.
But some lines, either because of the views of the passengers or the fact that they carry more chlldren onboard, are not able to meet that threshold.
To get ships back in the water faster – without alienating key demographics -- some lines are choosing to do both.
Test Cruises vs. Right Into Service
Take Carnival Cruise Line. The line has already publicly stated it will not mandate vaccines across its entire fleet. Yet newly-announced 2021 summer sailings to Alaska from Seattle aboard Carnival Miracle will require that all passengers and crew provide proof of vaccination prior to sailing.
Alaska typically attracts an older demographic to begin with, and it is thought that mandatory vaccinations for all crew and passengers are a condition for these ships being allowed to sail from Seattle.
Yet in Galveston, port officials noted at a Wharves Trustee meeting that Carnival was planning on running a series of test cruises in June. This would indicate that the line's cruises, from Texas at least, will not require passengers to be vaccinated.
Royal Caribbean seems to be following a similar policy. Royal Caribbean Group chairman and CEO Richard Fain hinted that a mixed vaccine approach may be the case, at least its Royal Caribbean brand.
"Everyone who is eligible for a vaccine will be expected to have one," Fain said in a video address posted May 24. "However, children under 12 can't yet get the shot, and Royal Caribbean International carries a lot of families."
"On these cruises…the vast majority (of passengers) will be vaccinated."
Royal Caribbean President Michael Bayley has posted on Facebook that applications for test cruises have been submitted to the CDC, although he didn't specify which ports. Cruise Critic has asked the CDC for comment.
Fain noted that it intends to vaccinate all crew members regardless of ship or sailing destination, and that Celebrity and Silversea -- Royal Caribbean Group's premium and luxury brands -- will carry a vaccine mandate for all passengers, effectively barring children under 12 from most sailings.
Decision Toughest For Family Lines
Family-friendly cruise lines are in a quandary as they look to restart operations. Vaccinations against COVID-19 are seen as the safest and most problem-free way to restart, yet children under 12 are unable to be vaccinated.
This leaves family-friendly cruise lines with two unpalatable options: Ban those passengers under 12 and anyone who is not vaccinated, at least temporarily; or allow both vaccinated and unvaccinated passengers on a given sailing, and go through the longer test cruise process.
Norwegian Cruise Line already made the difficult decision to ban all unvaccinated passengers, including those under the age of 12, on sailings through October 31, 2021. The family-friendly line told Cruise Critic that it hopes to be able to welcome younger passengers on future sailings.
"We want to show the government authorities out there that we can execute a wonderful guest experience with 100 percent vaccination," Norwegian Cruise Line President and CEO Harry Sommer told Cruise Critic. "So, for the first few months, it seemed to be the right decision to make."
Different Onboard Protocols
One thing that could happen with a mix of ships carrying different requirements is that passengers might have different rules and regulations, depending on which ship they are on – or what their vaccine status is.
The CDC has already dropped the pre- and post-cruise COVID-19 testing requirement for vaccinated passengers.
Fain also suggested in his video that masks would not be required onboard if you're vaccinated. How this would be monitored on a ship carrying both vaccinated and unvaccinated passengers has not been revealed.
One thing is certain: With no unified front across the cruise industry in terms of vaccine requirements, the onus will be on cruisers and travel advisors to determine whether their cruise of choice mandates COVID-19 vaccinations or not, and whether those requirements are ship or destination-specific, prior to booking.