By Gene Sloan February 8, 2021
It may be safe. But will it be fun?
That’s the big question frequent cruisers are asking about upcoming cruises as they look ahead to the resumption of sailings in more parts of the world. And the answer for a lot of them — including me, I think — might be, “Not as much as before.”
Cruise lines in recent months have announced all sorts of new, coronavirus-related rules and restrictions they plan to implement when cruising resumes in earnest around the globe — everything from mask-wearing requirements to limitations on touring in ports. And some of them could have a major effect on the cruising experience.
Will it still be fun to cruise if you can’t get off a ship in a port unless you’re part of a ship-organized tour? Will the cruising experience be the same if you can’t socialize with fellow passengers due to new social-distancing rules?
Judging from the conversations I’ve seen on cruise fan sites in recent weeks, there are many cruising regulars who aren’t so sure. And I might be in that camp, too.
That’s not to say that I’m done with cruising. I can’t wait to get back out to sea. But I might wait to book my next personal cruise vacation until after some of the coronavirus-related restrictions are lifted.
The world’s biggest cruise lines have assembled some of the world’s top experts to help them design new protocols to make ships safer when cruising resumes. They’re also getting guidance and mandates from government health authorities such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The efforts have resulted in a range of new rules and restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 that cruisers are likely to see when cruising starts up again, including:
- A mask-wearing requirement on ships
- Limits on social gathering on ships
- Limits on the use of some spaces on ships
- Limits on touring in ports
- Regular health screenings on ships
- A COVID-19 testing requirement
At least a few lines also will require passengers to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination before sailing.
Many of these new rules and requirements already have been implemented on the handful of cruise ships that have restarted operations around the world in recent months.
Just to be clear, I think all of the above things make sense. I am 100% on board with all the safety precautions that cruise lines have proposed and have been implementing.
The disastrous outbreaks of COVID-19 on cruise ships in 2020 point to the need for rigorous new measures if ships are to sail without incident while the illness remains prominent.
In short, it needs to be done. It just might not make for the most enjoyable cruise experience.
What you might expect from the new cruise experience
It’s one thing to talk about the new safety measures in the abstract. But what will it really be like on cruise ships when they start sailing again? Many cruise lines still are working out the details of their new rules and restrictions. And even those that already have announced specific protocols still could change them before they restart voyages.
But I got a taste of at least some of what we can expect in November when I sailed on the first cruise vessel to resume voyages in the Caribbean — and it left me with mixed feelings.
As regular readers know, the sailing (on a small SeaDream Yacht Club vessel) did not go well, to put it mildly. It ended with a COVID-19 outbreak and a quarantine for passengers. But before the outbreak occurred, the ship was operating with many of the same protocols listed above, including daily health screenings, social distancing rules and restrictions on touring during calls.
As I wrote about at the time, there was much about the onboard experience on the SeaDream vessel, SeaDream 1, that felt surprisingly normal. But over time, my feelings on the experience shifted a bit.
The new rule that, after a few days, struck me as the most onerous was a rule about interacting socially with other passengers. At the start of the trip, the cruise director asked that, for social distancing reasons, each of us only mingle on board with our traveling companions.
The idea was that nobody would come within a safe distance of 6 feet or more of anyone else who was not part of their traveling party.
This may seem innocuous enough. But cruising is a very social experience. A big part of why people go on cruises is to meet and interact with other people.
I, myself, love to meet new people on ships and often invite strangers to dine with me or join me in a lounge for a drink. For someone like me, being told to keep away from others on a ship amounts to a significant change to the way I cruise.
That said, for a couple or family who likes to keep to themselves while on vacation, such a rule isn’t nearly as a big deal.
I will say, too, that many passengers ignored the social distancing rule and interacted quite a bit with their fellow passengers at closer-than-6-feet distances. Social distancing rules are, by nature, hard for a cruise line to enforce as it’s not always clear to crew who is and isn’t traveling together.
Loss of spontaneity
Taking away the ability for cruisers to socialize closely with each other takes away some of the spontaneity of cruising. So do rules about touring in ports.
Many lines are considering a rule that would forbid passengers from touring on their own in ports. Passengers only would be allowed off ships if they had signed up for a ship-organized tour. The idea is that this would keep passengers from interacting with locals in a way where they might be exposed to COVID-19.
MSC Cruises already has implemented such a rule for the cruises it has restarted in Europe.
On the SeaDream cruise I took in November, which featured calls in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the line went even further by canceling stops in any place where passengers might interact with locals. Instead, the ship only visited uninhabited beaches and small islands.
Operating very small, yacht-like vessels, SeaDream is known for Caribbean trips that revolve around landings by Zodiac at remote beaches or other uncrowded locales, so the effort to avoid locals entirely didn’t drastically change the experience. But it still was a disappointment to not get to visit any of the towns of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The thought of taking a more traditional, port-heavy cruise on a big ship where I wasn’t able to walk around in the ports on my own just seems like a “Bridge Too Far” to me.
One of the things I love about cruising is the spontaneity that’s possible when pulling into a port. The ship delivers you someplace wonderful for the day, and you can explore it as you like. If you want to just pop out for a coffee in a square, you can. If you want to head to a museum, you can. If you want to climb the bell tower of a cathedral, you can.
If the only way off the ship is on a very structured, ship-sponsored tour, I’m not sure cruising has the same appeal for many travelers.
I’m also not crazy about the idea of some venues on cruise ships being closed or limited in their use. On the SeaDream trip I took, the gym, for instance, was open by appointment only, and the number of users who could visit at any one time was limited. There was no popping down for a quick bike ride on a whim. Again, this is a blow to the idea of spontaneity on cruises.
Big cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line in recent years have marketed heavily around the idea that you can do what you want when you want on cruise ships. In the coming months, when cruising resumes in earnest, that might not be the case.
The good news
Still, if you’re a diehard cruise fan worried about the new coronavirus-era rules, all is not lost. The good news is that many of the new rules and restrictions are unlikely to remain in force for long.
Cruise lines haven’t said anything official about how long they will keep these new protocols in place. But they have suggested it only will be as long as necessary.
It is likely that as soon as a large percentage of the population is vaccinated for COVID-19 and case counts have come down that many of these rules and restrictions will begin to fade away.