The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) this week ended a program that closely monitored COVID-19 cases on cruise ships—and published the results online.
For months, the CDC had maintained a color-coded chart, which had indicated COVID cases on a ship-by-ship basis along with any outbreaks that warranted investigation. But the landing page for that chart now states that the program has ended, effective July 18.
The agency also issued new, more muted cruise ship guidance that leaves it up to each cruise company to develop protocols for the health and safety of passengers and crew.
So, what does the CDC’s latest approach to cruising mean for travelers? Well, prospective passengers will need to closely read the rules provided by each individual cruise line to find out exactly what they may or may not require with regard to things such as precruise testing, vaccine mandates, mask wearing, and other mitigation measures.
The evolving pandemic protocols for cruising
At the start of the pandemic, the CDC completely banned U.S. cruising due to health and safety concerns, a policy that lasted from March 2020 until June 2021. The restart of cruising last summer came with numerous requirements regarding passenger and crew vaccinations, testing, mask wearing, and how to handle quarantine should anyone onboard become ill. These were later modified from “requirements” to “strong recommendations” by the agency.
In pulling back even further this week, CDC officials say they are confident that the cruise lines’ own programs are now up to snuff.
“Over the past two years, CDC has worked closely with the cruise industry, state, territorial, and local health authorities, and federal and seaport partners to provide a safer and healthier environment for cruise passengers and crew,” the agency said in a statement sent to AFAR. “CDC has determined that the cruise industry has access to the necessary tools (e.g., cruise-specific recommendations and guidance, vaccinations, testing instruments, treatment modalities, and non-pharmaceutical interventions) to prevent and mitigate COVID-19 on board.”
Several cruise lines contacted by AFAR said they were still reviewing the latest CDC policy and deciding how to respond.
“As always, our top priority is the safety and security of our guests, crew and communities we visit, and that will be top-of-mind for anything we decide moving forward,” said a spokesperson for Royal Caribbean.
According to Michelle Fee, CEO of the home-based travel advisors’ network Cruise Planners, the move “was long overdue.” She said that this latest development from the CDC “gives us great hope that the future for cruising is bright and will be back on track sooner rather than later.”
How cruise lines are updating their regulations
Inspired by the CDC’s decision in June to drop the COVID-19 testing requirement for incoming international air travelers, several cruise lines have dropped their own precruise testing requirements—when they are sailing in destinations where it is not required by the local government. Among the lines making the change are Viking, Virgin Voyages, and small ship line Azamara.
“The easing of our testing policy marks a step in the right direction towards a return to normalcy for the travel and cruising industry,” says Carol Cabezas, president of Azamara. “Cruising is one of the safest ways to travel, and our existing health and safety protocols onboard will ensure peace of mind for our guests and crew as we move forward.” Azamara still requires proof of vaccination to sail.
Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, parent of Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, is dropping its precruise testing requirement for most sailings as of August 1.
For now, most cruise lines still require those age 12 and up to be vaccinated—and some require all passengers to be vaccinated. Disney Cruise Line is among the few companies that require vaccinations for all passengers age 5 and up.
It is unlikely cruise lines will eliminate vaccine requirements altogether anytime soon, since the CDC still continues to recommend that cruise passengers be vaccinated, though some cruise lines may increase the number of unvaccinated guests they allow onboard.
As for the current CDC recommendations for cruising, as mentioned above, the agency continues to advise passengers to get their shots.
“While cruising poses some risk of COVID-19 transmission, travelers can make their own risk assessment when choosing to cruise, much like they do in other settings,” says the agency. “CDC continues to recommend that cruise travelers remain up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines and get tested for COVID-19 before and after they travel, and after any known exposure to a person with COVID-19.”
The CDC also recommends wearing masks “in indoor travel settings.”