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Cruise lines and their advocates argue that the travel advisory and its lingering shadow of doubt unfairly targeted the cruise industry, potentially putting off all those Canadians, and other would-be cruisers from around the world.Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Lately, it’s been tough to be a cruiser.

If the travel industry as a whole has gone 12 rounds with a heavyweight during the pandemic – and it has – cruising has done it in back-to-back bouts.

When Omicron hit last winter, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised its Travel Health Notice Level to four, its highest level, for all cruises and advised travellers to “avoid cruise travel, regardless of vaccination status.” While the CDC has since downgraded the level to a three, the damage was done and it looked as if it might be a knockout punch to consumer confidence. A recently rescinded Canadian travel advisory to “avoid all cruise ship travel outside of Canada” didn’t help either.

Such advisories can put fear in people’s minds, says Pam Hoffee, managing director of Avalon Waterways. While she doesn’t know definitively how the Level 4 advisory affected Avalon’s sales, she says that after a record start for sales for 2022 cruises, “there has been a slowdown.”

Cruising is a multibillion-dollar industry in Canada. As The Globe and Mail reported last year, of the 29.7 million passengers who cruised in 2019, about a million of them were Canadians, according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). That adds up to about 2.7 per cent of Canada’s population which puts Canadians, per capita, at the top of the list of travellers who love sea voyages.

But cruise lines and their advocates argue that the advisory and its lingering shadow of doubt unfairly targeted the industry, potentially putting off all those Canadians, and other would-be cruisers from around the world.

“If the average cruise ship were a U.S. state, it would be the safest in the country – by far,” said Zane Kerby, president and CEO of the American Society of Travel Advisors in a statement. “According to Royal Caribbean Group, since cruising restarted in the U.S. in June, 2021, its ships have carried 1.1 million guests with 1,745 people testing positive – a positivity rate of 0.02 per cent. Among U.S. states as of Jan. 4, Alaska’s positivity rate is the lowest at 9.4 per cent, with Georgia’s the highest at 38.7 per cent.” As a comparison, Canada’s positivity rate currently sits around 11 per cent.

Industry leaders are hopeful that travellers will get the message that cruise lines are working hard to create a safe escape.

“Fortunately, cruisers know and understand all the protocols our industry has put in place and they will continue to sail,” says Betsy O’Rourke, chief marketing officer of Windstar Cruises and its parent company, Xanterra Travel Collection. In the case of Windstar, safety measures include mandatory vaccination for guests and crew, high-tech air filtration systems and even vetting shore excursion guides to ensure they also are vaccinated and following mask and social distancing mandates. “For those who have never cruised before, it may have some short-term impact, but hopefully once COVID cases diminish, they too will be open to cruising.”

Consumers who aren’t ready to return to a big ship experience, can still travel in confidence on smaller lines, Hoffee says. She suggests they consider a river cruise and spend some time researching ship design – not just for destination ports and gourmet menus but for windows that open to let in fresh air, air circulation system descriptions and passenger counts.

Industry leaders are hopeful that travellers will get the message that cruise lines are working hard to create a safe escape.Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Avalon ships featuring “Panorama Suites with Open-Air Balcony,” floor to ceiling windows whose top halves open to provide a seven-foot-long access to the outside – as well as an air system that never recirculates indoor air are getting increased attention from savvy consumers. The cruise line’s record of zero COVID-19 cases (staff or guests), despite the more than 100 cruises it ran in 2021, is also a selling point.

Travellers who want even smaller ships may need a bigger budget. The Moorings offers private yacht charters in more than 20 destinations worldwide. A small three-cabin boat with a captain and all-inclusive food and beverage options starts at US$10,000-15,000 a week. If you’re hoping to bring friends and need something larger, a catamaran can cost more than US$30,000 with all the bells and whistles.

Many travellers, it seems, want exactly that. The Moorings senior marketing manager, Ian Pedersen, says yacht charters are beating all sales targets and 80 per cent of web traffic is now driven by new clientele. The attraction of just-our-bubble travel options is clear.

“What we’re finding is that people all over the country and all over the world are discovering private yacht charter vacations for the first time as an alternative to these mainstream cruise lines,” says Pedersen. “Even though you’re travelling all over the world, once you’re on that boat, it’s private and as remote as you would want it to be.”

Whichever size and price point they choose, consumers will have to continue to make their own decisions about safety in the months ahead. With the Canadian International Travel Advisory against non-essential travel lifted, more Canadians are likely to be heading out. And while most cruise ships have chosen to follow new optional CDC guidelines around COVID, which advise on everything from isolation and quarantine periods to which passengers are exempt from vaccine requirements, travellers should be sure to check their specific ship’s safety protocols before heading out.

For those who are hoping to cruise in the near future, Hoffee says pent-up demand will likely leave them with fewer choices.

“The advice I would have for Canadians is that now’s the time to book because there was a bit of a slowdown, but … it seems that tide is shifting.”

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