Picture: 123RF/HECKE
Picture: 123RF/HECKE

Columbus, Ohio — Royal Caribbean’s 4,275-passenger Freedom of the Seas has restarted sailings from Miami to the Bahamas with two classes of passengers on board — those vaccinated against Covid-19, and those not vaccinated. Jabbed guests, identified with special wristbands, get full run of the ship; those unprotected from the virus won’t even be able to walk into the sushi bar, casino or spa.

Freedom is the first ship to depart the US without a vaccination requirement, and it is also the first to depart from the nation’s cruise capital of Miami. For all the city’s influence on the cruising industry, it has also proved to be a difficult place to restart business, given that Florida governor Ron DeSantis has barred businesses from requiring vaccine cards.

“The cruise experience benefits from being impromptu,” says Jukka Laitamaki, a tourism marketing expert and professor at the NYU School of Professional Studies Jonathan M Tisch Center of Hospitality. Cruisers are typically free to hang out where they want, do what they want to do, and make friends. But unvaccinated cruisers on Freedom will find much of that restricted.

“It is the cruise lines’ worst nightmare to have to have separate areas for the vaccinated and unvaccinated,” Laitamaki says.

The system has proved necessary. Even on cruises with strict Covid-19 vaccine requirements for adults, issues have already cropped up. In late June, Royal had to pay to repatriate two unvaccinated teenagers who tested positive — and their families — from the Bahamas. Sister line Celebrity also had an incident of two asymptomatic guests testing positive on a sailing from St Maarten. (You can still carry the coronavirus even when vaccinated.) 

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s rules for cruise companies require lines to enforce mask-wearing and social distancing when unvaccinated cruisers are on board. But companies have some discretion about the finer points.

One deck

Royal Caribbean’s list of restrictions for Freedom, issued in mid-June, is long. It applies to all sailings on the ship in July — and likely to four other ships the line plans to launch from Florida this US summer, with capacities of up to 6,680 passengers.

Those with a hole punched in their SeaPass, indicating that they have not been jabbed or declined to show a vaccine card, will be segregated to one deck of the main dining room and will be banned from some of the better, more intimate for-a-fee dining venues. (That includes families with unvaccinated children, too, as long as they are sticking together.)

Off limits will be the popular maritime-themed Schooner Bar pub and Viking Crown nightclub, the casino, art auctions, and the indoor Solarium pool and bar. Gatherings such as the 1970s-themed party will be open only to vaccinated guests. If you are not immunised and want to see a show, you will sit in a segregated area in the back of the theatre. And you can only use the gym during specified hours.

At least for now, mask wearing is required indoors (but not outdoors) of everyone on board Freedom when not eating or drinking, though some venues that are only open to vaccinated guests will be able to nix the rule.  

The trip will cost more for unvaccinated guests, too. Anyone over the age of 12 who does not voluntarily show proof of vaccine will have to provide a negative result from a Covid-19 PCR test taken within three days of departure. They will also have to pay for a second test at the pier and a third upon disembarking on the last day — totalling $136 or $178 per person, depending on the sailing.  

In addition, Royal is requiring unvaccinated travellers leaving from Florida to buy travel insurance — at least $25,000 per person for medical expense coverage and $50,000 per person for medical evacuation — from August 1 to the end of 2021. On a one-week cruise, this can add $200 or more to the combined fare of an unvaccinated family of four.

And that is just on the ship. Each port of call has its own constantly changing rules, some requiring guests without immunity to stay on board or limit themselves to select shore excursions.

Lost revenue

For cruise lines, which have already lost billions of dollars in the pandemic and are just getting back to business, the two-class system may have an impact on the revenue stream. On-board spending accounted for 28.3% of Royal Caribbean’s total revenue in 2019, according to Bloomberg Intelligence senior analyst Brian Egger. If there are many unvaccinated passengers, those figures may end up suppressed.

So far that’s not the case. Only 7% of the passengers on the first Freedom cruise are unvaccinated, and most are children. At that rate, on-board spending losses may tap out at about $50,000, a drop in the bucket on a ship that, say, rakes in $1.5-million per trip. Mark Tamis, senior vice-president of hotel operations for Royal, said lost revenue did not even enter into the equation.

But the line is only sailing at 40% capacity to allow for social distancing and put new health protocols to the test, with plans to ramp up capacity throughout the summer. Immunised guests may not want to co-mingle with the unjabbed, potentially hampering ticket sales or driving cancellations, which have been high since Royal announced its protocol.

“The people who are not vaccinated don’t want restrictions,” says Mindy Breitman, a travel adviser with Cruise Planners, who has been busy fielding cancellation requests. “And the people who are vaccinated don’t want to wear masks because of the non-vaxed on board,” she says.

Both cruisers and cruise executives agree that a vaccine requirement would be the ideal way to go. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 95% of passengers and crew be vaccinated. And in fact both Royal’s sister line Celebrity Cruises and Carnival Cruise Line are appearing to put DeSantis’s decree to the test, with carefully worded policies that boil down to vaccine requirements for anyone on board.

In places such as Alaska and Galveston, Texas, where they have been given the choice, major cruise lines have also only allowed inoculated guests on board,—making exceptions only for children. Norwegian Cruise Line says its ships only will sail with vaccinated passengers through October. And all the lines are aiming for 100% crew vaccinations.

Strong desire

Richard Fain, chair of Royal Caribbean Cruises, parent of both Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises, has said repeatedly that he would prefer that all guests get the jab, adding that surveys show that more than 90% of the line’s customers are vaccinated. Micky Arison, chair of Carnival (parent company of brands such as Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Holland America Line), has taken to Twitter to urge people get vaccinated.

Cruisers don’t need much persuading. Most are showing a strong desire to sail with other vaccinated passengers. A survey of 5,000 readers of the popular website Cruise Critic found in June that 89% would cruise if vaccines are a requirement.

But there has also been some push back. When Mike Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean, explained policies for unvaccinated guests on Facebook recently, the hundreds of responses he received included both applause and vitriol from opponents espousing antivax rhetoric.

“My only request is please share your opinion or comments in a polite way,” Bayley said in a follow-up. “If you could read some messages I have received! It’s scary!”

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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