Some COVID-19 protocols on ships could be here to stay, say cruise line executives

Sep 27, 2021

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Many of the COVID-19 protocols now in place on cruise ships could be permanent, according to cruise line executives who spoke Monday at Seatrade Cruise Global, the cruise industry’s annual conference.

“Yes, a lot of them are going to be here to stay,” Gina Dunnett, director of land program development Azamara, said at the Miami Beach event during a panel on how the pandemic was changing shore excursions. “I think people will just become accustomed to them.”

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A crew member holds a bottle of cleaner as he prepares to sanitize public areas on cruise ship Celebrity Millennium. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

That means precautions like extensive cleaning, air filtration, handwashing and sanitizing could continue to be enforced, long after we stop seeing spikes in coronavirus infections.

But a lot of those things have already been in place for years, as one panelist pointed out.

“I think a lot of the protocols that we have in place — like hand sanitizers and promoting washing your hands — have always been in place,” said Jeannette Coto Dou, vice president of onboard revenue for Celebrity Cruises. “Maybe the rest of the world on land had to [put the protocols in place], but [for cruises], it was always important to keep our guests safe. That was always a huge standard for us. I think some of [the current protocols] were there, and they will always be in place. Maybe we’re just communicating them differently [now].”

Celebrity provides passengers with branded masks. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

But what about some of the bigger, more restrictive mandates, such as mask-wearing?

“Masks … might be one of the first things you see go,” Dunnett said. “…I do think that physical distancing we’ll see become a narrower distance, but … none of us has a crystal ball.”

The industry has already seen social distancing relaxed on some ships, even in indoor areas, and mask rules have fluctuated by line, with restrictions tightening most recently after the delta variant caused the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to change its recommendations to advise that even vaccinated people wear face coverings indoors.

Some lines have also begun to phase out capacity restrictions on their vessels. The first ships to resume sailings started at about 25% capacity, but many lines have since doubled that. Crew-served buffets are also likely to be reconsidered over time, with some lines — such as Carnival — never having implemented them in the first place.

A cruise port agent verifies proof of vaccination before boarding. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Proof of vaccination was not discussed, but panelists said that one of the biggest issues they’ve had to deal with is monitoring how best to keep passengers safe.

“This is a constant daily monitoring of what’s going on in these destinations around the world to make sure we’re offering as safe of an experience shoreside as we’re trying to do onboard,” said Dunnett, who is in charge of Azamara’s AzAmazing Evenings — destination-immersive excursions that take passengers to memorable locations for local cultural performances. Currently, the line is tweaking that offering and also allowing cruisers to book some of its most popular excursions as private tours to avoid larger groups.

Related: Why I feel safer now on a cruise ship than in my hometown

Among other challenges within the excursion landscape, panelists discussed how important collaboration has been between cruise lines, ports and shore excursion operators, particularly in ports that require bubble excursions — another protocol many passengers would be happy to ditch.

Signage throughout Celebrity Apex reminds passengers to leave space between themselves and other people as part of Celebrity’s onboard COVID-19 protocols. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Niamh McCarthy, managing director of Excursions Ireland, the sole shore excursion aggregator for cruises that call on Belfast in Northern Ireland, said it has been a struggle to keep up with ever-changing rules in each port. “We’re not just talking week by week; we’re talking day by day — the changes from day to day,” she said. “We’re continuously communicating with the coach operators, the guides … the venues. Oh, yesterday was a bubble tour; today they’re independent. It is a challenge.”

Coto Dou agreed, adding that Celebrity currently sails to several destinations where passengers aren’t allowed to disembark in port unless they’ve booked ship-sponsored excursions. The key, she said, is for cruise lines to try to set expectations for cruisers by sharing as much information as possible as early in the cruise planning process as possible. On the passenger end, she did admit that a level of flexibility is needed right now, as things can change at a moment’s notice. “We’ve all learned a level of patience,” she said.

Featured photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy.

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