The first cruise set to sail from American ports in more than 15 months is headed to the Caribbean this summer.
Celebrity Cruises got approval from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to bring passengers aboard for the seven-night cruise on June 26, the company announced this week.
"CDC and the cruise industry agree that the industry has what it needs to move forward and no additional roadblocks exist for resuming sailing by mid-summer," CDC spokesperson Caitlin Shockey confirmed in an email.
It's welcome news for an industry that ground to a halt during the pandemic. Now, emboldened by the CDC's green light and a pent-up demand, the industry has high hopes for a quick recovery.
Companies will have to strike the right balance of keeping their promises of a comfortable and relaxing experience, while sticking to the rules laid out by the CDC.
But Stewart Chiron, an industry expert doing business as The Cruise Guy, says that a "groundswell of demand" suggests that antsy would-be passengers are willing to jump through a few hoops just to get back on board.
"If they were able to have sailed in May or June of last year, there's people that would have," he said. "There were loads of people that were so desperate to go, they didn't care where they went, or if they went anywhere. The itinerary was secondary to just getting away on a cruise and being out on the ocean, and doing something normal again was a primary factor."
But what will "normal" mean for passengers, exactly?
Vaccination will get you closer to a pre-pandemic cruise
For the most part, individual cruise experiences will depend on vaccination status.
The Celebrity cruise's permission to sail is contingent on 95% of its crew and passengers being fully vaccinated before boarding the ship in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The CDC is also giving cruise companies an alternative to meeting that threshold. Companies can run trial cruises at limited capacity to test the effectiveness of their health measures.
However, cruise ships that meet the vaccination threshold will have more relaxed mask and social distancing rules.
The embrace of immunization will likely sit well with most passengers. In an April survey of its readership, the website Cruise Critic said that 81% of respondents would board a cruise if vaccines were required.
"The buffet is not dead"
Close quarters, shared meals and activities among international passengers led to some of the first known COVID-19 super-spreading events, such as the outbreaks aboard the Diamond Princess and Grand Princess ships, which sickened more than 800 passengers and crew members.
In March 2020, cases linked with cruise travelers accounted for some 17% of the reported cases in the U.S.
That said, self-service buffets were looking like a thing of the past even before the coronavirus. Many cruise ships had long ago opted for staff to serve diners buffet offerings instead, to contain the spread of the common flu.
But under the new CDC guidelines, fully vaccinated passengers are free to fill up their plates themselves.
"We were surprised by this because it seems that the cruise lines were moving more towards a served buffet and that kind of option," said Chris Gray Faust, managing editor of the website Cruise Critic. "But the buffet is not dead."
While vaccinated guests can ditch social distancing for leisurely dinners, cruise lines are still required to encourage outdoor dining and room service.
At ports, cruise lines are urged but not required to prohibit independent exploration by unvaccinated passengers.
"It does seem that if you're vaccinated and you're on a ship where most of the people are vaccinated, your experience ... will look more similar than we would have thought to before the pandemic," said Gray Faust.
"All the things that people enjoyed — you know, socializing with other people, eating and drinking, going to the pool, going to shows — all of that is still going to be available and open."
Don't expect a digital detox
But pandemic signposts will remain. If cruise lines follow CDC recommendations, travelers will be seeing a lot more gadgetry.
Cruise lines are encouraged to provide wearable contact-tracing technology. For some of its ships, Royal Caribbean International has already rolled out mandatory waterproof bracelets for guests that will make it easier to pinpoint who has been exposed to the coronavirus in the event of an outbreak.
According to CEO Michael Bayley, the company has implemented surveillance tech, in the form of facial and body recognition, to verify contact tracing cases.
"Those types of things have been really effective, at least what we've seen over in Europe and in Singapore," said Gray Faust of Cruise Critic.
And the time-honored muster drill? It's gone virtual for some lines.
The Cruise Guy, Stewart Chiron, will be on that first cruise to the Caribbean next month.
He sees the introduction of new safeguards less as a hurdle to a carefree vacation and more of a smart move that will right the industry's course.
"So far, it's changing for the better. They're basing this not on just convenience, but based on the science that we have today," he said, unlike "the confusion from three or four months ago."
But he's still willing to put up with extra nuisances if it means he can cruise. Before his late June trip, he's ending his cruise drought next week for yet another Caribbean trip outside U.S. waters that will take off from St. Maarten.
For him, it's the outbound airline flight — the long lines and vaccination paperwork — that stands between him and smooth sailing.
"When I travel next week, I'll be taking an extra bag packed with a little bit of extra patience," he said.
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