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No longer is the cruise industry taking steps back in response to the coronavirus pandemic; now, the segment is once again stepping forward into the light with success in Europe and hopefully soon in the Americas.
Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) and the Healthy Sail Panel have submitted their health recommendations to resume operations to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for approval. What’s more, clients themselves are raring to go.
Following CDC’s Request for Information (RFI) and call for any and all public input, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. and Royal Caribbean Group’s joint Healthy Sail Panel and CLIA’s core elements supported by Carnival Corporation were recently submitted for review. The former is an extensive 65-page document including 74 best practices, and the latter is a distillation of six mandatory protocols to be adopted by member cruise lines.
The industry hope is that the rigors of each will be enough to appease CDC into lifting its No-Sail Order. The government agency’s mandate is currently set to expire on Sept. 30, and CLIA’s own voluntary suspension is in place through Oct. 31. If the industry’s recommendations are approved, cruise lines would have a month to firm up and implement specific health measures before guests return onboard.
Travel advisors were also encouraged by the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) to submit their comments to CDC’s RFI.
“The RFI is our chance to urge the CDC to work with the cruise lines and put the necessary safety protocols into place to lift the No Sail Order as soon as possible and as safely as possible,” said Eben Peck, executive vice president, advocacy at ASTA, in a press release. “To help travel advisors respond, ASTA created a portal where travel advisors could answer some of the questions posed by the RFI, and close to 700 did.”
The RFI is our chance to urge the CDC to work with the cruise lines and put the necessary safety protocols into place to lift the No Sail Order as soon as possible and as safely as possible.
What remains to be seen is whether such recommended protocols will be enough to officially satisfy CDC and cruise travelers.
Interesting to note, according to the 2020 Back to Normal Barometer survey, of which ASTA has participated, only 27% of cruisers trust CDC’s guidance and just 25% trust the World Health Organization’s (WHO) approval. Inversely, the survey indicates that 73% of travelers who have taken a cruise within the past year are ready to cruise now.
This apparent distrust of international agencies in regard to permitting cruise travel is likely a result of the inconsistent expectations of health measures.
“[Cruising is] being held to a different standard with stringent oversight that’s not being applied to the same degree to any other sector in travel, even air,” said Matthew D. Upchurch, chairman and CEO of Virtuoso, in a statement about the Heathy Sail Panel.
“The conversation has evolved to waiting for a vaccine before travel fully resumes,” he added. “While that’s a goal worthy of aspiring to, it has not been the case with other threats that disrupted travel. Sadly, terrorism wasn’t eliminated before we got back on planes following 9/11. Zika wasn’t cured before we returned to the Caribbean. In no way do I want to minimize the severity of COVID-19 or a global pandemic, but the reality is that like other threats, it becomes part of the traveler’s risk profile. Our job, as travel professionals, is to help travelers make informed decisions based on all factors, including their personal risk tolerance.”
Still, when polling more than 350 agents as part of TravelAge West’s Need to Know research series, 84% of respondents believe health protocols will be crucial to reviving their business. It’s the areas of implementation that could divide clients, however: While 46% believe testing will not hinder sales, a solid majority do think onboard social distancing (71%) and required face coverings (76%) could deter customers.
"I have heard from more of my clients about their aversion to wearing face masks than about getting a test or vaccine,” said Adam Martindale, owner of a Cruise Planners franchise in San Diego, Calif. “But I have not had any negative feedback about social distancing.”
These sentiments have surely contributed to CLIA’s core mandates, which include 100% testing of passengers and crew for COVID-19 before embarkation but also a greater leniency regarding mask wearing. Their required use is stipulated by all passengers and crew onboard and during excursions “whenever physical distancing cannot be maintained.”
According to its Masks and COVID-19 Q&A, WHO advises masks “for people in the general public where physical distancing of at least 1 meter is not possible.”
Additionally, the Healthy Sail Panel details more stringent tolerances for testing, social distancing, face coverings and more, and specifies potential pier-side COVID-19 tests immediately prior to boarding, capacity reductions and more universal indoor mask wearing.
Of course, none of these recommendations, beyond CLIA’s core mandates, have been made into actual policies yet. Individual lines will eventually choose which items will become their standards moving forward. So, stay tuned on those and CDC’s ultimate decisions.
In the meantime, there is at least an increasingly bright light at the end of the tunnel.