As swiftly as it emerged, the fast-moving Omicron COVID-19 variant has just as quickly impacted Caribbean cruise vacations. This week Omicron outbreaks compelled cruise lines to alter current sailings and cancel some upcoming voyage days after several destinations closed their ports to cruise ships.
The closures threaten to stall operators’ largely successful return to Caribbean waters in late 2021 after the pandemic struck in March 2020.
Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) became the most recent company to change course Tuesday, canceling Norwegian Getaway’s nine-night January 5 cruise from Miami to Curaçao, Aruba and the Dominican Republic.
NCL informed passengers and travel advisors the “difficult” choice to terminate the departure was “due to COVID-related circumstances.” The Miami-based operator is offering guests a full refund and discounts on new bookings.
Several Caribbean destinations turned away cruise ships last week after lines reported COVID-19 infections. The Bahamas barred MSC Cruises’ MSC Seashore from docking at its private island, Ocean Cay, on December 29 due to reported COVID-19 cases.
Earlier in December, Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Freedom was denied entry to Bonaire and Curacao after a “small number” of people were infected, according to a Washington Post report. At least six Royal Caribbean International, Holland America Line and Carnival cruises were altered by coronavirus outbreaks last week.
Reflecting the outbreaks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this week designated 92 ships (representing every cruise vessel now sailing in U.S. waters) as “yellow” under its color-coded system, triggering an investigation. CDC considers a ship “yellow” when 0.1 percent or more of its passengers have tested positive in the last seven days or if a single crew member tests positive.
The agency had already elevated its travel warning for cruise ships from Level 3 to Level 4, the highest level, on December 30, advising consumers to avoid cruise ship travel regardless of vaccination status. Shipboard cases soared from 162 in the first two weeks of December to 5,013 between December 15 and 29, a timeline mirroring the Omicron variant’s surge.
“The chance of getting COVID-19 on cruise ships is very high, even if you are fully vaccinated and have received a COVID-19 vaccine booster dose,” CDC warned.
The Case for Cruising
The cruise industry’s main trade association has pushed back at CDC’s characterization of shipboard COVID-19 transmission. “[CDC’s] decision is particularly perplexing considering cases identified on cruise ships consistently make up a very slim minority of the total population onboard – far fewer than on land,” said Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) officials in a December 30 statement.
Additionally, “the majority of those cases are asymptomatic or mild in nature, posing little to no burden on medical resources onboard or onshore,” CLIA officials added. “No setting can be immune from this virus. However, cruise provides one of the highest levels of demonstrated mitigation.”
American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) officials sounded a similar note following CDC’s announcement.
“An increase in reported COVID cases on cruise ships should surprise no one given the worldwide spike driven by the highly transmissible omicron variant,” said Zane Kerby, ASTA’s president and CEO.
“The difference between enjoying a cruise vacation and visiting your local grocery store or restaurant however is the extraordinarily stringent anti-COVID measures put in place voluntarily by the cruise lines, in close consultation with the CDC.”
Kerby added, “Cruising is no more responsible for the spread of the Omicron variant than travelers from southern Africa were at the outset of the current crisis.”
For their part, officials at Caribbean cruise ports remain bullish on cruise activity, albeit under continuing protocols. “The rise of the Omicron variant has prompted both cruise lines and destinations to modify protocols, causing as many as 15 sailing cancellations to [Puerto Rico],” said Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico.
“Cruise lines and destinations have been nimble to evolve with the changing environment,” Dean said. “Puerto Rico has also advanced entry guidelines and on-island measures to safeguard residents and visitors. We are confident as we collectively take these precautions to ensure safety now, cruises will return to San Juan in the future.”
The cruise industry “has made tremendous strides since the shut down and have implemented stringent protocols to keep their guests and crew as safe as possible,” said Randy Rolle, a Bahamas legislator in a Bahamas Tribune interview. “Cruising is a critical component to Bahamas tourism and we remain optimistic that any impact will be minimal.”
Cruise selling advisors also expressed confidence Caribbean cruising would weather the current Omicron storm. “I’m taking it on a case-by-case basis, said Edouard Jean, owner of New York-based Massive Travels. “I’m going to give [clients] the facts.”
Jean noted that “things have changed on the cruise ships,” including “no more buffets.” Additionally, “ships are not sailing at capacity, so there are fewer people aboard,” he said.
“I have people who have come to me for cruises and who are set to cruise,” Jean said. “In the general scheme of things, I am of the same mind with ASTA [officials].” He advises cruise clients to “Talk about it with whoever is traveling with you, and then make a decision based on the facts, not misinformation or fear.”