Will Cruises Be Back in 2021 and Will Vaccines Be Mandatory?

Cruises from U.S. ports have been suspended since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a "No Sail Order" in March, 2020. But will cruises return to American waters at some point in 2021? And will passengers need to be vaccinated to travel?

Because the risk of COVID-19 on cruises is very high, the CDC still recommends avoiding any travel on cruise ships around the world.

In October 2020 the CDC issued issued a Framework for Conditional Sailing Order for cruise ships operating or seeking to operate in U.S. waters, replacing the previous No Sail Order. The framework lays out a phased approach for the resumption of passenger cruises.

During the initial phase, which is still ongoing, cruises will continue to be suspended. Any potential restart will depend on when the CDC releases new technical guidelines, which will allow cruise operators to begin test voyages designed to prove that they can sufficiently mitigate the risks of COVID-19.

Cruise lines have suspended voyages calling at U.S. ports until May this year, with some hoping to restart in the summer. But this may be too early for a resumption, David Freedman, a professor of epidemiology and travel medicine expert with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told Newsweek.

"This is a highly uncertain area right now for ships calling at U.S. ports due to a strict safety stance by the CDC. All cruise lines are now saying June at the earliest but I think likely later," he said. "They need to recruit for and conduct test cruises, then it will be another 60 days before earliest possible approval. Meanwhile, CDC will only release their criteria for test cruises this week or next."

Freedman thinks cruises will "definitely" resume at some point in 2021. But Alaska cruises will likely be cancelled again this summer and we will probably only see limited cruises in the Caribbean, he said.

It is also looking likely that some cruise lines at least will initially require passengers to be vaccinated. Some cruises that have departed from other nations around the world recently have required passengers to be vaccinated.

"Good chance that first real cruises will be for vaccinated people only, several lines have declared this already. At a minimum passengers will need testing both a few days in advance at home and then again dockside. If testing only, I am not certain that one will be able to still prevent large outbreaks on ships just lessen risk, passengers are going to have to understand this if they aren't vaccinated."

Freedman said the conditions on board will likely be very different to what passengers are used to—no buffets, no crowded bars, masks in public spaces, no crowded evening entertainment and likely limited shore excursions at the outset.

"For Americans I think we will see 5-7 day Caribbean cruises for vaccinated people by this summer but with constrained activities and maybe no port stops or stops only at the private islands maintained by the cruise companies. Less certain would be cruises for unvaccinated people—remember no children under 12 will be vaccinated till 2022 and 12-16 years old only by October."

Mahmood Khan, a professor of hospitality and tourism management at Virginia Tech told Newsweek that given current epidemiological situation in the United States, he was "optimistic" about the situation, while noting that "we are still not out of the woods."

"I think it will be late 2021 when some cruises will be operational, particularly close to Christmas time," he said. "Summer 2022 will see normal operations provided the contagion is under control and new strains do not have any impact on consumer confidence."

In order for the cruise industry to return successfully, Khan said mandatory vaccinations for travellers and crew are "necessary."

"Besides, strict measures for cleaning, sanitation, and securing safe products and services are essential. Once these measures are followed strictly, the cruise industry will spring back sooner than other travel businesses."

But not all cruise lines may be willing to make vaccinations mandatory, according to Freedman—and those that do might not introduce the measure for all their voyages.

"You may see a combination with a premium price for vaccinated only cruises and then young healthy folks will have more options as they are willing to take more risk," he said. "Of course this is a public health issue if these young people amplify on board and then pick up variant strains and bring back. I can see a scenario where non-vaccinated people might have more stringent testing criteria to return."

Some cruise lines have yet to announce whether or not travellers will require vaccines. For example, major cruise operators, Carnival Corporation, Norwegian Cruise Line and Princess Cruises told Newsweek they were closely monitoring the situation but had not yet made a decision on introducing such a measure.

"We are exploring all options regarding vaccinations for guests and crew and it is our intention that all crew members be vaccinated before boarding our vessels to begin their duties, subject to availability of the vaccine," a spokesperson for Norwegian said.

Royal Caribbean cruise ship in Miami
Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas cruise ship is docked at PortMiami on March 2, 2021 in Miami, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images