The real reason Royal Caribbean is sailing with fewer vaccinated passengers than other cruise lines

Jul 5, 2021

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If you just can’t get enough cruise restart news, we’ve got some more for you. I’m currently sailing on a three-night Bahamas voyage on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas out of Miami. It’s the first cruise for the line in more than 15 months. But what’s interesting is that it’s not requiring passengers — including adults — to show proof of vaccination as a requirement to embark.

Despite an early commitment to vaccination efforts and the fact that the line’s ships will require adult passengers to be vaccinated when departing on sailings from other U.S. states, Royal Caribbean executives claim the line never considered mandating a 95% vaccination rate on its ships (like sister brand Celebrity Cruises is doing). Such a mandate would have allowed them to skip test voyages mandated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a condition of restarting cruises from U.S. ports.

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(Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle/Getty Images)

It also says the move had nothing to do with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ blocking of cruise lines’ ability to ask for proof of vaccination as a condition of carriage for passengers.

I sat down with Mark Tamis, Royal Caribbean’s senior vice president of hotel operations, to find out more about why the vaccination decisions were made.

All about families

“When the first set of potential regulations were published, it was such an obvious choice of the path that we had to go down,” Tamis said. “Once there were two clear paths — 95% or under 95% — it wasn’t even really a consideration. We knew one path would allow us to have families, and one path would limit the number of families.”

“Almost everyone who’s unvaccinated is a kid, and about half of the vaccine-eligible kids, even on this cruise, are vaccinated,” Tamis added. (There are currently 107 children 17 and younger onboard.) “A good 20 to 25% of our guests are kids because we’re the largest family cruise brand in the world, so it was pretty obvious that we would just go down this path.”

(Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean International)

As a result, there are some venues that are designated for only people who are vaccinated (and vaccinated people can remove their masks in these areas). Additionally, everyone is allowed to remove masks in outdoor areas, as well as on Perfect Day at CocoCay, Royal Caribbean’s private island. But otherwise, masks must be worn in all indoor public areas onboard that aren’t specifically designated for vaccinated passengers.

Although unvaccinated passengers can’t access places like the casino, the spa and a handful of bars and restaurants, it’s not as exclusionary as it sounds. That’s particularly true because, despite the lack of vaccine requirements, 93% of the ship’s 2,197 people (1,041 passengers and 1,156 crew) are fully inoculated.

A hand sanitizing station on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

“So far, there haven’t really been any issues,” Tamis said when asked how the new protocols had been received on this cruise. But, he acknowledged that it’s still early, and the situation is constantly changing. “Going back into service, from a guest satisfaction perspective, it could either be really good or it could actually be really bad. We’ll see feedback … on Monday, and we’ll react to it very quickly.”

Good news expected soon

Although this sailing is at less than 30% passenger capacity, Tamis said he hopes ships will be at about 50% initially, with potential increases monthly if all goes well.

Additionally, Tamis and Royal Caribbean president and CEO Michael Bayley both said they expect mask mandates on ships could be lifted by the CDC early this week for ships with a certain percentage of vaccinated cruisers.

It’s unclear whether the rollback would apply to Florida-based ships, though, since there’s no way for the line to know how many inoculated passengers will be sailing on each voyage until embarkation day.

Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean International)

This news comes as the line prepares for a test sailing on Serenade of the Seas on Wednesday, departing from Seattle. Jewel of the Seas will also resume sailing in the Mediterranean with a voyage out of Cyprus this week.

“I certainly hope that, by the fall, it’ll really feel like we’re back in business,” Tamis said.

Featured photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy.

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