Six months ago, retired B.C. couple David Lang and Cathy Brusegard booked a cruise from Los Angeles to Vancouver that sets sail in April 2022. It will be the latest in a long list of ocean voyages they’ve taken to different parts of the world, including in the Caribbean, Cuba, Mexico, Alaska and the Panama Canal, but the first since the COVID-19 pandemic left most passengers ships onshore.
The couple has missed life on the sea.
“We love the idea of the ship being your moving hotel; you wake up each day in a new place,” Mr. Lang says. “We also enjoy ‘sea days’ in between ports when we can just relax on our balcony or elsewhere on the ship, soaking up the sun and sea air and reading.”
While they’re looking forward to the trip, and are fully vaccinated, they’re having some second thoughts as the number of COVID cases rising again in the U.S. and around the world. They have until the end of January to cancel, which would cost them their $260 deposit.
“I’ll be monitoring all cruises between now and then to see how they go and whether there are any outbreaks on board,” Mr. Lang says.
The couple is among thousands of Canadians who love to cruise and are anxious to get back to it. The global cruise industry hosted 29.7 million passengers in 2019, the last normal year for the industry, and about a million of them were Canadians, according to the industry group Cruise Lines International Association. That’s about 2.7 per cent of the Canadian population, making this country, per capita, among the most ardent fans of sea voyages in the world.
Cruising was largely suspended worldwide in mid-March 2020, with a limited number of voyages taking place last summer. Cruise operators began to gradually resume sailings in June, but most don’t expect to launch their full fleets again until at least this fall or even next year.
Still, that doesn’t seem to be stopping Canadians from booking them, says Ann-Marie Gaudet, co-owner of Moncton-based Cruise Holidays Select.
“People are worried, but not enough to not book,” says Ms. Gaudet, who has been quite busy making reservations for customers.
Some travellers are easing back in with smaller European river cruises, which tend to have fewer than 200 people on board, she says, but plenty of people are booking large Caribbean and tropical voyages from now into 2023.
Mr. Lang says they’ll be carefully reviewing the ship’s protocols before stepping across the gangplank next spring. To feel comfortable getting on board, Mr. Lang will want to see what health and safety measures the cruise line has put in place.
“For example, [I’ll look to see] whether the boarding routine will be changed to reduce crowding, whether buffets will still be used, whether limits will be applied to the number of people in certain areas of the ship like dining room, gyms, theatres, and whether masks will be required anywhere,” he says.
He’ll also want to see if the operator, Princess Cruises, will require proof of vaccination, pre-cruise COVID-19 tests, which he favours, and what plans are in place if there is an outbreak on board.
Most cruise lines are implementing “vaccinated” cruises, meaning they will have a high enough threshold of vaccinated passengers to achieve herd immunity.
For example, Carnival Cruise Lines has set a threshold of 95 per cent. Unvaccinated passengers will be allowed on board with an approved exemption, but only once the 95 per cent threshold is confirmed.
Passengers will have to provide negative COVID-19 test results prior to boarding and again before disembarking on cruises longer than four days. The U.S. Centre for Disease Control has issued guidelines for cruise ship operators that includes a recommendation that non-vaccinated people avoid travel.
The complication for Canadian passengers is that some companies, also following U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines, don’t recognize Astra-Zeneca as an approved vaccine because it hasn’t been approved in the U.S. They also don’t recognize some mix-and-match vaccines. Canada has used both.
“If we are unable to approve the request for an exemption, guests will have the option to cancel the unvaccinated guest(s) from a reservation, move to a future sailing date or cancel with a full refund to the original form of payment,” says Carnival spokesperson Vance Gulliksen.
Mr. Lang says he and his wife and both in the clear. He received two doses of the Moderna vaccine and the company recognizes Ms. Lang’s mixed Pfizer-Moderna vaccination.
Cathy Kirsh and her husband, along with her sister and brother-in-law, are fully vaccinated and ready to set sail with Carnival next month. They paid extra for cancellation insurance, just in case.
“If it looks bad, I guess we’ll cancel,” says Ms. Kirsh, who is retired but still running a cattle ranch with her husband near Quesnel, B.C. “Yes, another couple of months probably would have been better but [September] is the only time that works for us.”
It will be her first cruise, while her sister and brother-in-law have taken several sea voyages.
The vaccination requirement is comforting, she says, along with knowing that their own vaccinations mean they are unlikely to get sick or become less ill if they contract COVID.
The virus is still out there and will continue to be. And of course cruise ships have had other issues such as outbreaks of Norwalk virus, but Ms. Kirsh is optimistic.
“It’s worth taking a chance for a beautiful cruise,” she says.