A year has passed since cruise ships were in the eye of the Covid-19 hurricane, after they turned out to be ideal places for the virus to spread widely.
On March 13, 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a no-navigation order for ships in U.S. waters.
Meanwhile, the International Association of Cruise Lines, an important entity in the sector, voluntarily suspended all operations.
Carnival cancels all remaining cruises through February 2021
As a result, the effort to get passengers and crew members home took several months.
The ports closed their access to the vessels affected by the virus, while the cases of covid-19 on board increased in a spiral.
And when the passengers finally returned home, crew members stranded at sea suffered from mental health.
Today, the multi-billion dollar cruise industry remains in limbo.
Vaccine distribution has brought some optimism, and in some countries, Covid-19 numbers are finally declining after a devastating second wave.
But even so, international travel remains restricted.
Most of the world's major cruise lines canceled their trips until the northern hemisphere summer.
In addition, there are questions about what it will be like to navigate these vessels again, after the covid-19 pandemic.
Attempts to bring cruise ships back into certain markets have so far had opposite results.
Although it is difficult to determine exactly when and how the world will reopen, here is what we know about the future of cruise travel.
What do cruise companies and countries say?
Cruises out of service remain in waters around Cyprus.
(Credit: ROY ISSA / AFP via Getty Images)
Right now, most of the world's cruise companies are still out of service.
In Europe, some companies very cautiously resumed operations last summer, including MSC Cruises and Costa Cruise Line.
The two cruise lines made trips in Italy with strict protocols for covid-19.
However, tours were canceled when a second wave of Covid-19 hit the continent during the winter months.
MSC resumed voyages on its Grandiosa ship at the end of January 2021. In that regard, it plans to begin another Europe-only cruise on MSC Seaside in May.
For its part, Costa Cruises plans to restart its trips to Italy on March 27, 2021. Both companies will only serve passengers living within the Schengen zone of the European Union.
AIDA Cruises, owned by Carnival Corporation, is scheduled to restart cruises to the Canary Islands in March 2021.
In the US, the CDC's no-sail order was suspended in October 2020. As a result, detailed regulations were announced on how cruise travel could return to the country's waters.
This included conducting "simulated voyages" designed "to replicate the real world aboard cruising conditions".
The CDC rules were announced before the administration of vaccines in the country was accelerated.
So the guidelines in this case focus on preventative measures, including pre-shipment screening.
However, confidence in the tests was questioned when seven passengers tested positive for COVID-19 aboard the SeaDream 1 cruise ship with 112 passengers.
Precisely, the first ship that sailed in the Caribbean since the pandemic began.
The official CDC guide still states that "all people" should avoid traveling on cruise ships.
Additionally, the rules for returning cruises will remain in effect until November 1, 2021.
“The approach to resuming cruise travel has several phases.
And our current stage is in protecting the crew and working with the cruise lines to implement the requirements of the initial phase of testing the entire crew and developing the capacity of the laboratory on board, "explained a CDC spokesperson to CNN Travel.
In that sense, the agency pointed out that there was no set date to start the simulated trips.
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In Britain, a government 'global travel task force' works to determine when international travel to and from the UK can restart.
Now, the official roadmap stipulates that it should not be before May 17.
There has also been a debate in Britain about cruise lines taking national tours this summer, rather than itineraries around the world.
Princess Cruises reported that it canceled its extensive cruises departing from the UK until the end of September.
It added that it would instead launch a series of "new short cruises" that would depart from the British port of Southampton on its Regal Princess and Sky Princess ships.
P&O and Cunard also announced plans for 'vacation home' tours on cruise ships departing from the UK.
Australia, which took a hard line on arrivals during the pandemic, has a cruise ban in effect until June 17, 2021.
For its part, Canada has extended its cruise veto until February 2022.
In Singapore, Royal Caribbean is scheduled to resume in March the so-called "cruises to nowhere", tours that were made in December 2020 on the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship.
Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas has made "cruises to nowhere" in Singapore.
(Credit: Royal Caribbean)
Carnival Corporation owns Princess Cruises, Carnival Cruise Line, Costa Cruises, P&O Cruises, Cunard, Princess, and Holland America.
Roger Frizzell, one of its spokesmen, told CNN Travel that the company will take "a tiered approach" to initially return "with a limited number of our ships sailing."
“In the United States, we do not yet have dates for when our brands will be able to start sailing again.
We are awaiting additional technical specifications from the CDC, ”Frizzell said.
He also added that Carnival had "the hope that our entire fleet would be sailing again by the end of the year."
MSC Cruises suspended all US-based voyages until April 30, 2021.
See the assembly of this cruiser in 1:28 seconds
Norwegian Cruise Line has paused tours until May 31, 2021. A Norwegian spokesperson told CNN Travel that the cruise line was working on its return-to-service plan to meet CDC requirements.
Royal Caribbean International, owner of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises and Silvesea, stopped most Royal Caribbean voyages until May 31, 2021.
The exceptions are the Quantum of the Seas, which has Singapore-based tours that go nowhere.
Also the Spectrum of the Seas and Voyager of the Seas China trips, which are due to restart on April 30.
In addition, Royal Caribbean is planning an inaugural cruise for its brand new ship Odyssey of the Seas, which will depart Israel in May for the Greek islands and Cyprus.
This trip requires all crew and passengers over 16 to be vaccinated.
In Israel, more than 50% of the population have received both doses of a vaccine.
What about vaccines?
When British operator Saga Cruises became the first cruise line to implement an exclusive requirement for vaccinated passengers in January 2020, the decision sparked much speculation about whether the rest of the industry would follow suit.
Saga Cruises has said that its return to cruise ships will be for vaccinated passengers only.
(Courtesy of Saga)
Since then, the US operator Crystal Cruises has also said that all guests must be fully vaccinated before boarding future Crystal cruises.
"Passengers must provide proof of vaccination prior to boarding and must have received both doses of the vaccine if the manufacturer recommends it within that time," says a statement from Crystal Cruises.
Royal Caribbean's plans for Odyssey of the Seas voyage to Israel further reinforce the idea that vaccines will be the key to reopening the sector.
It is unclear how travelers will prove they have been vaccinated, although Israel has been testing a green pass system that allows vaccinated Israelis into restaurants or theaters.
CLIA spokeswoman Julie Green told CNN Travel that her organization, which accounts for 95% of ocean cruises, believes that “vaccines should coexist with testing regimens and other protocols and be viewed as a progressive improvement of the responsible travel ”.
"No single measure is effective, and a multi-layered approach is appropriate to mitigate risk," he said.
Norwegian Cruise Line has also said that "all crew members must be vaccinated before boarding."
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What will it be like on board?
When the MSC Grandiosa returned to the waters last August, the trip was characterized by COVID-19 testing, social distancing, hand disinfection and temperature controls.
The ship was also operating at reduced capacity.
The day trips were strictly moderate and non-compliance with the rules was not tolerated.
Mask wear and pre-boarding tests characterized the return of the MSC Grandiosa to the waters.
(Credit: MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP via Getty Images)
Travelers and crew members were tested prior to boarding using a primary antigen test and a secondary molecular test.
On board, cleaning methods were improved, including hospital-grade disinfectant and the use of UV-C light technology.
Meanwhile, CDC requirements suggest that future cruises will require face covering on board, hand hygiene and social distancing.
Laboratory tests will also be performed for all passengers and crew when they board and disembark.
Simulated cruises that must take place before the 'official' cruises depart will test the effectiveness of these preventive measures.
Per CDC guidelines, each cruise line will have to submit a report after the simulated cruise is completed, which will then be reviewed, provided by CDC, and issued a conditional navigation certificate for covid-19, assuming it is they have met all the requirements.
A series of simulated cruises may be required.
The goal, according to the CDC's conditional navigation order, is “a return to passenger travel in a way that mitigates the risk of introduction, transmission or spread of xovid-19 among passengers and crew on board ships. and on land to the communities.
The MSC Grandiosa departing Genoa, Italy, on August 16, 2020. (Credit: MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP via Getty Images)
CLIA's Julie Green told CNN Travel that she is establishing protocols that members of her ocean cruise lines must follow.
She points to the onboard regulations implemented on recent European cruises as a sign of what is to come.
"The measures include rigorous monitoring, 100% testing, expanded cleaning and sanitation, and comprehensive prevention, surveillance and response measures on board," says Green.
He added that all measures “will be continually evaluated against the state of the global pandemic and may change over time as circumstances evolve.
We continue to be guided by the knowledge of the scientific and medical communities.
How safe are cruises?
The susceptibility of cruise ships to the spread of infectious diseases was already common knowledge before 2020, due to previous outbreaks of norovirus at sea.
Temperature controls and hand hygiene help keep travelers healthy.
(Credit: MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP via Getty Images)
While the cruise industry has a loyal following, some travelers may feel nervous about returning after reading reports of Covid-19 cases on board, cabin closures and weeks of searching for ports.
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, calls cruises "the epitome of a large gathering, often in cramped indoor spaces for extended periods."
When cruise ships dock, travelers mingle with the local port population and could spread an infection even more.
Schaffner tells CNN Travel that is why Covid-19 and other viruses have been a problem on cruise ships.
"The answer is that the more we vaccinate passengers and crew, the safety will increase and the risk will decrease," he says.
Schaffner also cites rapid tests as "another method to reduce the risk of introducing the virus" while "acknowledging that these rapid tests have limitations."
He also advocates good hand hygiene and reduced capacity on board.
"If there were unvaccinated people on board, either in the crew or in the passengers, I would say not to sail."
- Dr. William Schaffner, Vanderbilt University infectious disease expert
- Dr. William Schaffner, Vanderbilt University infectious disease expert
For Schaffner, it's about creating layers of security: "a series of slices of Swiss cheese" is the analogy he uses.
“Each one has a barrier, but each one has holes, it has small holes.
So you put another and another after and another after.
And if you do a whole series of things, then the risk associated with the activity, in this case cruises, decreases.
For Schaffner, one of these "slices" has to be the vaccines.
"If there were unvaccinated people on board, either in the crew or in the passengers, I would say not to sail," he says.
Schaffner says that only allowing vaccinated passengers on board, as Saga and Crystal plan to do, "would be perfectly reasonable."
"The imposition, so to speak, of a vaccination requirement, having it documented and testing everyone who comes on board, would substantially reduce risk and would greatly contribute to the rejuvenation of the cruise industry."