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Personal Travel Experiences: Cruising Into Travel Recovery

The cruise industry is preparing for its comeback. Cruise lines are now claiming they know how to safely carry passengers to much-desired destinations. That said, many of us vividly remember March 2020, when a cruise ship was one of the worst places to be. It was hard to even fathom what safe cruising could look like in a post-pandemic world.

The cruise industry, like all other sectors of the travel and tourism industries, has been significantly impacted by the pandemic, with the three largest cruise companies (Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian) losing $900 million each month during the pandemic, according to The New York Times.

Confidence among most epidemiologists and public health experts about whether cruise ships could operate safely during the pandemic has been low, given how cruise ships require high numbers of passengers to stay in close proximity. But Chairman and Chief Executive of Royal Caribbean, Richard D. Fain, recently stated that “The ship environment is no longer a disadvantage, it’s an advantage because unlike anywhere else, we are able to control our environment, which eliminates the risks of a big outbreak.”

This August, I had the opportunity to be a test passenger on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas for six nights—at no cost. Prior to this experience, I wouldn’t have believed claims that safe cruising could be possible. But the lengths that Royal Caribbean’s protocols took to ensure the safety of passengers and staff had me feeling safer than I did in my hometown grocery store.

The ship I went on was at only 10% of its usual capacity with only vaccinated people who were tested 72 hours prior to departure. Yet, I still anticipated this to be the biggest health risk I took since the start of the pandemic. Even though all of the passengers on the test cruise were vaccinated, future cruises would be open to the unvaccinated, including children, so Royal Caribbean implemented strict mask and cleaning protocols. They also designated select passengers to act as simulated unvaccinated passengers who were required to follow additional protocols.

Throughout the duration of sailing, I didn’t come into contact with any of the simulated unvaccinated passengers. They provided those individuals with a separate floor level for dining, alternate performances to attend and prohibited them from entering many of the ship’s indoor bar areas. Before entering any room, bar or restaurant on the ship, all passengers were required to use hand sanitizer or wash their hands regardless of “vaccination status,” and masks were required indoors unless eating or drinking. Every crew member was vaccinated, masked and enforcing social distancing at every possible moment.

Royal Caribbean is not requiring all passengers to be vaccinated on future sailings, but some cruise lines (e.g., Norwegian and Virgin Voyages) are. The CDC has recommended that both passengers and crew be vaccinated prior to boarding, which would create a safer environment and allow for relaxed safety protocols.

The CDC has also recently updated guidance for cruising as of the end of August, now saying that travelers who are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, including older adults, people with certain medical conditions and pregnant/recently pregnant people, should avoid cruising. Prior to this announcement, only people who were not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 were recommended to avoid cruise ships. The CDC’s website also says that the close quarters of cruise ships makes chances of COVID-19 transmission “high.”

Of course, any kind of travel in this post-pandemic world carries risk. The CDC approved the Oasis of the Seas to move forward with scheduled cruises following the success of our test sail. Still, I personally question whether the safe, successful sailing we had at 10% capacity with only vaccinated passengers could be truly reflective of an 80% capacity ship including both vaccinated and non-vaccinated passengers.

We would love to know your thoughts on what the future of cruising should look like from your perspective. Please feel free to reply with your opinion!

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