After COVID Restrictions, Cruises Are Back and Looking Toward the Future

Emerging from the pandemic pause, cruise companies are newly focused on health, sustainability, and the wellbeing of local communities.

After COVID Restrictions, Cruises Are Back and Looking Toward the Future

Cruises are back and newly focused on what the future may look like.

Illustration by Tim Peacock

Cruisers are back on the water: dancing on open decks to live music, joining guided expeditions for close-up views of glaciers and penguins, and stepping off river ships to amble around such cities as Luxor, Egypt. In other words, they’re safely traveling.

It has been a rocky two years for cruise lines. After early COVID-19 outbreaks on ships, the industry essentially shut down in March 2020—and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) stopped ships that visit the United States from sailing until June 2021. The industry started to get back on its feet in the summer of 2021, only to face further setbacks due to the Delta and Omicron variants; in January 2022, the CDC deemed cruises a “very high-risk” activity (the agency lowered cruising to “high-risk” a month later).

Today, travel advisors are reporting high pent-up demand from their clients, and some itineraries are sold out well into 2023. “Antarctica is flying off the shelves,” says Judy Perl, president of Judy Perl Worldwide Travel and a member of AFAR’s Travel Advisory Council. “Many of our cruise clients are new to cruising and are interested in expedition travel, celebrating milestone events, and multigenerational reunions.”

While no one knows what the future will hold, the year has started with the cruise industry feeling optimistic for the first time since 2020. Here are a few changes cruisers can expect as they return to the sea.

Health and safety

In the last year, cruise companies embraced protocols such as mandatory vaccines for passengers and crew, precruise PCR tests, and mask requirements. While masking has since been relaxed, “Many health and safety protocols introduced during the pandemic are here to stay,” Perl says. She cites booster shots, required with most cruise lines, as well as apps that allow for a paperless, touchless guest experience.

Many lines, such as Seabourn, Windstar Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, Oceania Cruises, and Lindblad Expeditions, have updated their HVAC systems for better ventilation. Ships have cabins set aside for quarantine in case of positive COVID cases on board, as well as procedures to get ailing passengers to shore. Viking Ocean Cruises added full-service PCR labs on each of its ocean and expedition ships.

Sustainability

The cruise industry is pursuing net carbon neutrality by 2050, though it will take significant engineering, supply, and regulatory efforts to achieve that goal. Such companies as Carnival Corporation and Royal Caribbean Group made new commitments related to sustainability that include offsetting their carbon footprint, building ships that run on liquefied natural gas (LNG), and exploring alternatives to heavy fuel, such as biofuel and methane.

In the spring of 2022, Hurtigruten’s second hybrid fuel-and-electric ship, the polar-class MS Fridtjof Nansen, will set sail along the Norwegian coast. The ship can run its engines on batteries, reducing emissions by 20 percent. The new 245-passenger icebreaker Le Commandant Charcot, from the French company Ponant, sails for up to eight hours using zero-emissions electricity and the rest of the time on LNG. Big ocean liners are going the cleaner-fuel route as well, including Disney Cruise Line, which this summer will launch its first LNG-fueled ship, the 4,000-passenger Disney Wish, for journeys from Port Canaveral, Florida, to the Bahamas.

Culture

Small ship and luxury cruise lines are putting more attention on local cultural interactions, both on board and ashore. In June 2021, ultraluxury line Silversea Cruises, on its 596-passenger Silver Moon, introduced the S.A.L.T. (Sea and Land Taste) program to educate guests on destinations via regional food and drink. On a Greek Isles cruise, passengers might learn to make a fig and goat cheese tart; dine on Santorini’s yellow fava dip served with onions, capers, and Greek olive oil; and dock in Mykonos to sip ouzo and meet with organic cheese producers.

To gain a greater understanding of a destination, more travelers are opting for a locally owned cruise operator based in the region they are visiting. For example, Adventure Canada’s 198-passenger Ocean Endeavour returns this year, and several itineraries include visits with Inuit and First Nations elders. Passengers may hear throat-singing or participate in a discussion about subsistence hunting.

Kontiki Expeditions, a startup Ecuadoran cruise company, waited
two years to launch the luxurious 18-passenger Kontiki Wayra, which finally set sail in March 2022. The ship visits less-touristed areas of the coastline, such as the tuna-fishing capital of Manta and the city of Guayaquil. When not swimming in crystal-clear waters or admiring howler monkeys, guests might meet cacao producers and artisan straw weavers or help the chef gather local ingredients.

>> Next: Why Now Is the Best Time to Plan and Book an Antarctica Sailing

Fran Golden covers cruises for AFAR.
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