Cruise industry breaks pre-pandemic travel records

AAs people around the world followed the early spread of COVID-19 on a quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship off Yokohama, Japan in February 2020, the cruise industry began to spiral. “Until COVID hit, they were having record sales,” says Richard Simms, editor for Cruise Radio, of cruise lines. But then, “for a while, they became the unattractive face of COVID.”

The pandemic has plunged the cruise industry into a 15-month shutdown. But it has since gradually recovered – now the ships are fully operational, with new protocols in place. The Cruise Lines International Association predicts passenger numbers this year will surpass 2019 figures, with 31.5 million passengers boarding cruises in 2023.

For a time, the protocols included working with the US Centers for Disease Control to develop industry-wide standards, such as vaccination requirements and testing. But last summer, the CDC ended its COVID-19 program for cruise ships, leaving individual cruise liners to determine their own protocols regarding case mitigation.

However, cruises are still required to report outbreaks to the CDC, as they do with norovirus, which is now associated with cruise ships due to health officials tracking the spread of the virus on ships. Major cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Princess, have dropped their vaccine requirements for most cruises, with some exceptions (such as some Carnival cruises longer than 16 days and some cruises departing from Australia ).

Other than that, dining areas are more spaced out and people are less likely to squeeze into an elevator, but overall “it’s really normal on board,” says Simms.

For those still hesitant, Simms notes that many lines are investing in a “ship-within-a-ship” concept, like Norwegian’s “The Haven,” where travelers can pay a premium for more secluded amenities like a pool, bar and a dining room. “These were still 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 are in an area where you have limited contact unless you choose to step out of it. You feel an additional bubble of protection.

Simms says cruise lines have returned all ships to service, and many intend to expand to attract younger customers and first-time cruisers. “A good sign for the future of the industry is the number of new ships being built,” says Simms. “The industry knows it can recover.”

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