For the first time in two years, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is no longer warning travelers about health risks on cruise ships. The agency, which issues global travel health warnings based on potential health threats to travelers, eliminated cruise ships from its warnings list on Wednesday.
“While cruising will always pose some risk of COVID-19 transmission, travelers will make their own risk assessment when choosing to travel on a cruise ship, much like they do in all other travel settings,” the agency said in a statement. “CDC will continue to provide guidance to the cruise ship industry to operate in a way that provides a safer and healthier environment for crew, passengers, and communities through CDC’s COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships.”
The CDC added, “Cruise ship travelers should make sure they are up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines before cruise ship travel and follow their cruise ship’s requirements and recommendations.”
The CDC first warned of the COVID-19 risks of cruise travel in March 2020, when a ban on cruises sailing from the United States was first imposed. Cruises restarted in June 2021, and for several periods since, cruising was rated by the agency as level 4, or “very high risk.” This year, the risk rating gradually started to decline from “very high risk” to “high risk” to “moderate risk.”
The move to do away with the warning comes after the cruise industry unanimously adopted CDC-required health and safety measures, such as vaccine requirements for passengers and crew and precruise COVID testing. Ships also made such improvements as adding new air-filtration systems.
While current requirements vary by cruise line and travel destination, on cruises embarking from the U.S., the crew and the majority of passengers (if not all) must be fully vaccinated. The requirements for children also vary. For instance, in Alaska for the upcoming summer season, Royal Caribbean is requiring fully vaccinated status for everyone age 12 and up, while Holland America Line is requiring vaccines for everyone age 5 and up. Precruise testing is also required, and in some cases midcruise testing as well, on ships embarking from the U.S.
The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which counts among its membership the majority of the world’s biggest and most well-known cruise lines, said on Wednesday that the CDC’s decision to remove the cruise warning “recognizes the effective public health measures in place on cruise ships and begins to level the playing field, between cruise and similarly situated venues on land, for the first time since March 2020.”
Individual cruise lines also praised the CDC’s move. “The CDC’s removal of its health notice related to cruise travel is an important step forward in recognizing the work we have done to protect our guests,” said Gus Antorcha, president of Holland America Line.
“While we feel this was a long time coming, we recognize this move as a demonstration of all of the hard work this industry has done to ensure that we’re offering the safest way to travel,” said Tom McAlpin, CEO of Virgin Voyages.
The CDC’s move comes at a time when there are still cases of COVID-19 occurring on cruise ships. As of March 29, according to the agency’s own color-coded consumer reporting system, 38 ships operating in the U.S. were listed at level “orange,” meaning the agency is actively investigating an outbreak. The CDC’s threshold for investigations is 0.3 percent or more of total passengers and/or crew testing positive.
Earlier this week, multiple cases of COVID-19 were reported on the Ruby Princess as the ship returned to San Francisco from a sailing through the Panama Canal. The ship, which made headlines due to a massive outbreak onboard at the start of the pandemic, is currently listed as “orange” on the latest CDC chart.
Travelers should still exercise caution in terms of jumping on a cruise ship, Thomas Russo, a leading infectious disease specialist and chief of infectious diseases at the University of Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, tells AFAR.
“As long as there’s Omicron around, there’s a reasonable likelihood there will be someone on the cruise ship that is infected and it could be transmitted to you,” Russo says. He recommends that anyone who qualifies for a booster shot (including a second booster shot) should consider getting jabbed before cruising.
“If you’re vaccinated and boosted and you’re not immunosuppressed, I think that you’re in pretty good shape, and the likelihood of you getting serious infection is a smallish number,” Russo adds. “Keep in mind, though, if you become symptomatic and have to isolate that could ruin your cruise vacation that you paid a lot of money for.”