When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, there was practically no worse place to be than a cruise ship. Today, as COVID-19 still lingers around the world, cruise industry leaders are making a bold claim: Cruising is not only safe, but it’s safer than other kinds of travel and vacations.
Public health experts consulted by the Miami Herald agreed to some extent, but with caveats.
At the SeaTrade cruise conference last month in Miami Beach, Florida, the industry’s largest gathering, executives promoted their ships as the safest vacation option, based on the fact that they can mandate vaccines and testing, compared with vacations where travelers take airplanes, stay in hotels and dine at restaurants.
“There will be no safer way of traveling once we truly start cruising,” said Emre Sayin, the CEO of Global Ports Holding, the world’s largest cruise port operator. “And that will become an advantage.”
The claim was echoed by many other industry leaders at the conference. Richard Fain, the CEO of Royal Caribbean, said, “Unlike almost any other place you can think of whether it’s restaurants, hotels, entertainment venues ... we control the environment.” Arnold Donald, the CEO of Carnival Corporation, agreed, stating that their safety protocols were “much more rigorous than equivalent or similar land-based activities.”
In an interview with the Miami Herald, Tom McAlpin, the CEO of Virgin Voyages, Richard Branson’s newly launched cruise line, said that their cruises are “safer than a hotel, safer than the grocery store.”
Epidemiologists say there is some truth to the claim: Enclosed environments, including cruises, are largely safe if every passenger and crew member is fully vaccinated. However, they stopped short of declaring it the “safest” travel option.
“It’s not the safest vacation; camping out in the woods would be the safest vacation option,” said Kathleen Sposato, the director of infection prevention at Jackson Health System. “As with everything else these days, there’s a risk/benefit analysis that everyone has to do when making decisions at this stage in the pandemic.”
Sposato also pointed out that when compared to taking an airplane and staying in a hotel, cruising means prolonged exposure to hundreds or thousands of people on a ship, whereas domestic flights are only a matter of hours and hotel guests have far less interaction with one another.
Some experts noted possible exceptions that can put a dent in the cruise industry’s argument, including that children under 12 are still not eligible for the vaccine, the risk of passengers presenting fake vaccine cards and the situation at ports of call.
“The cruise industry has a strong argument, but the next question is, cruise liners go and visit other ports in other countries,” said Dr. William Greenough of Johns Hopkins, who specializes in international infectious disease spread and has studied norovirus and influenza outbreaks on cruises. “There’s the rub. How are they handling that? Passengers may be coming into contact with populations abroad that are not highly immunized.”
The cruise industry won a victory when a federal court sided with Norwegian Cruise Line in its lawsuit against the Florida Surgeon General after the state banned businesses from mandating vaccines, paving the way for cruises to require full vaccination for passengers and crew.
Dr. Jessica Justman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University Medical Center, encouraged potential passengers to read the fine print about COVID safety protocols when selecting a cruise.
“The devil is in the details,” she said. “If I were selecting a cruise as a passenger, I would want to understand exactly what the vaccine requirements were, how many exceptions there would be for unvaccinated people, what the testing requirements are, and how often they’re repeated. I’m all for increased surveillance.”
Among the largest cruise operators, Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival Corporation and Royal Caribbean require full vaccination for all passengers over the age of 12, with some limited exceptions. MSC Cruises says on its website that passengers who don’t show proof of vaccination “must comply with the requirements for not fully vaccinated guests.” Branson’s adults-only Virgin Voyages requires all passengers to be fully vaccinated and performs rapid tests upon boarding.
Justman said she has advised her family members to select a cruise where monitoring is very stringent. Dr. Cindy Prins, an epidemiology professor at the University of Florida, said she discouraged family members from taking a cruise in August and September because of the delta variant, but gave the green light for them to get on board in December.
Sposato, the infection prevention specialist at Jackson Health System, said she would suggest vacationers consider choosing something else.
“We’re so close to being past this thing, but a year from now, it’ll probably be fine,” she said. “In my opinion, it’s an unnecessary risk, but I’m not dealing with the mental health issues that many people are.”
Experts agreed that with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it’s important for people to make informed decisions based on their personal health and comfort levels.
“We’re at a phase in the pandemic where people need to pick what risks we want to take based on what activities are important to us,” said Justman. “If going on a cruise for vacation is something that’s really important, then approach it in a way that’s as careful as possible.”