As people around the world followed the early spread of COVID-19 on a Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined off Yokohama, Japan in February 2020, the cruise industry began to spiral. ”Up until COVID hit, they were having record numbers of sales,” Richard Simms, staff writer for Cruise Radio, says of the cruise lines. But then, “for a while, they became the unattractive face of COVID.”
The pandemic sent the cruise industry into a 15-month shutdown. But it has gradually recovered in the time since—now ships are fully back in business, with new protocols in place. The Cruise Lines International Association forecasts that the number of passengers this year will surpass 2019 numbers—with an anticipated 31.5 million passengers embarking on cruises in 2023.
For a time, protocols included working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to come up with industry-wide standards, such as vaccination requirements and testing. But last summer, the CDC ended their COVID-19 program for cruise ships, leaving individual cruise liners to determine their own protocols around mitigating cases.
However, cruises are still required to report outbreaks to the CDC, as they do with norovirus—which has come to be associated with cruise ships due to health officials tracking the virus’ spread on ships. Major cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Princess, have dropped their vaccine requirements for most cruises, with a few exceptions (such as some Carnival cruises longer than 16 days, and some cruises departing from Australia).
Aside from that, dining rooms are more spaced out, and people are less likely to squeeze into an elevator, but overall, “it really feels back to normal on board,” says Simms.
For those still hesitant, Simms notes that many lines are investing in a “ship within a ship” concept, like “The Haven” from Norwegian, where travelers can pay a premium for more secluded amenities like a pool, bar, and dining area. “Those were always popular before the pandemic, but I think they might be even more popular now because you’re removed from the rest of the ship,” he says. “You’re in an area where you have limited contact unless you choose to go outside of it. You feel an extra bubble of protection.”
Simms says cruise lines have returned all ships to service, and many have plans to expand to attract younger customers and first-time cruisers. “A good sign for the future of the industry is how many new ships are in the works,” says Simms. “The industry knows it can recover.”
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