‘We feel we’re not going to get really sick’: why the pandemic hasn’t dissuaded ocean cruisers

Travel agents report Australians’ interest in cruising increasing 40% each month since June, with one analyst describing it as ‘the Teflon market for travel’

On 16 September, Miami-based Oceania Cruises, a luxury culinary-focused cruise company that is a division of Norwegian Cruise Lines, set an all-time, single-day booking record. It was driven by the introduction of its newest ship, Vista, due to take its first passengers in April 2023. Nearly half the available inventory of Vista’s inaugural season was sold in one day. These were new cash bookings, 30% of which came from people booking with the company for the first time.

It’s hard to know what this means for Australia. According to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), 1.34 million Australians took a cruise in 2018, one of the highest rates in the world by population, yet international travel is currently off limits.

At least 28 people died and more than 800 were infected with Covid after the Ruby Princess docked in Sydney in March 2020, the most disastrous of numerous outbreaks on board cruise ships in the early weeks of the pandemic.

Since 27 March 2020, no foreign-flagged cruise ships have been allowed to enter Australian waters and they remain banned until 17 December at least. It’s unclear whether it will then be lifted, and there is no published plan for how the industry might reopen.

Nonetheless, James Kavanagh, Australia’s managing director at Flight Centre Travel Group, says Australians’ interest in setting sail has been steadily on the rise, increasing about 40% each month since June.

CLIA has established extensive new health protocols, but it has not mandated compulsory vaccinations for crew and guests on its member cruise lines. This would appear contrary to the best advice of epidemiologists.

Catherine Bennett, an epidemiologist at Deakin University, says, it makes “absolute sense” to require vaccinations for passengers and crew.

“The traditional cohort of cruise passengers is also older and more at risk of serious Covid disease due to other underlying illnesses but, thankfully, generally has a higher vaccine uptake.

“UK studies show unvaccinated people are three times more likely to be infected. If vaccinated people have a breakthrough infection they’re 95% less likely to develop a very serious illness.

“Vaccinations reduce the risk of someone needing acute care beyond what the ship can easily provide. Cruise ships should do rapid testing, especially after shore visits, but it’s not enough. It’s all about minimising the risk and maximising the preventative measures. Among other things, they also need to improve air filtration, launch with lower passenger density, and ensure their capacity to deal with people going downhill rapidly.

The Carnival Spirit cruise ship in Sydney.
The Carnival Spirit cruise ship in Sydney. Photograph: David Gray/Reuters

“When cruising is brought back, the last thing the industry wants is a Covid outbreak on a maiden voyage. We’ll soon get to a point that we’ll have high enough vaccination rates to no longer worry about mandating this,” she says. “But, in the interim, there are still high levels of Covid where ships visit all around the world.”

Numerous individual cruise lines have established vaccine mandates, but they can vary by port and destination and even by specific sailings, as some companies distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated cruises. Some require unvaccinated guests to have travel insurance. And definitions for what it means to be fully vaccinated can vary by country. The vaccination rules are bound to change over time, too, as Covid cases ebb and flow, so booking in advance requires a leap of faith about what the protocols might be in 2022 or 2023.

Bryan and Kay Tolra, on one of their frequent pre-pandemic cruises.
Bryan and Kay Tolra, on one of their frequent pre-pandemic cruises. Photograph: Supplied

If there is plenty of pent-up desire to travel, excitement is mixed with uncertainty. Covid has diminshed the appeal of cruising for some over-60s, while others, such as self-described “cruisaholics”, seventy-something Bryan and Kay Tolra, from Perth, are raring to get back to the high seas. They have done 64 cruises since 2003.

“We love cruising because you’re superbly looked after; you travel to great places around the world; and you meet fantastic people all along the way. It’s safe, the food is fabulous, you can drink and not drive, and the crew is great. We’ve already booked a World Cruise for 2023,” Bryan Tolra says.

“I feel profoundly confident the cruise industry will do everything it can to make passengers safe in a post-Covid world. I think it’s a good idea to require crew and passengers to be vaccinated. We’re both double vaxxed. Covid has impacted our destination choices, though. There are some places we wouldn’t go anywhere near now.”

Gold Coast resident Sally Wiseman, her husband and three children (aged 12, nine, and seven) can’t wait to start cruising again. “The sooner the better,” she says. “There’s a pent-up demand for cruising from the whole family. As a mum, too, I don’t have to worry about packing and unpacking and cooking dinners. We can all relax and the kids have lots to do.

“During lockdown, we discussed with the kids what family memories we wanted to create and it was all about bears, whales and glaciers so we’re planning a cruise in Canada and Alaska in 2023,” she says. “I’m more concerned with the logistics of flights than fears for our safety. We’re double vaxxed and the 12-year-old is booked for his vaccination so we feel we’re not going to get really sick. It’s also important for the crew to be vaccinated and wear masks.”

Neil Stollznow is director of sales at SMP Survey Software, which does regular surveys on brand health in the travel sector. Its July 2021 survey on ocean cruising found that 26% of the respondents planned to take a cruise in the next five years.

“There’s no evidence that high-end cruises are seeing higher demand than the low-cost domestic market,” he says. “They’re all doing well. Cruising is the most well-marketed sector of the travel industry. Other tourism areas are so fragmented, they don’t have a unified offer.

“Cruise clients tend to be very loyal and assume that cruise companies will be operating in a Covid-safe way. When Norovirus swept through ships, cruise lovers were much more forgiving than consumers in other sectors. Ocean cruising is the Teflon market for travel.”

The speed of the cruise industry recovery depends on how effectively it can establish a post-Covid safety record, to allay concerns among the public, as well as regulators.

Bennett explains epidemiologists’ understanding of risk.

“Traditionally, we’re worried about any activities that keep people together for a long time who don’t normally mix. With cruise ships, especially large ones, if one person gets sick, there’ll be a rapid escalation of a viral outbreak because these are ideal conditions for microbes to spread,” she says.

“In the case of Covid, if too few people are vaccinated, transmission is faster and more people become critically ill. If we can’t control Covid with lockdowns and isolation in Sydney, it will be much worse within close quarters on ships.

“Cruise ship operations may now be much safer than before,” she says. “The question is: will it be enough?”

Susan Gough Henly

The GuardianTramp

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