Cruise bookings smash records. And passengers are accepting COVID-19 likely will be aboard

Anna Jean Kaiser
Miami Herald

Miami — Jennifer Chatham, a real estate agent who splits her time between Miami and Houston, recently took her third Carnival cruise during the pandemic.

Her first two cruises, in September 2021 and January this year, were without incident. Then in April on an eight-night cruise around the Caribbean on Carnival Horizon, she tested positive for the coronavirus on day six.

“I don’t think that people really understand what they’re getting into when they’re going on a cruise. I didn’t understand what I was getting into,” she said, noting she was extremely ill with COVID-19 and left alone in an isolated cabin with no one checking on her. “I really, really hate to say it, Carnival has been my ship that I’ve cruised with for a long time, but I wish I had had a more positive experience when I was sick.

A 2018 file image of the Carnival Cruise Line's Carnival Horizon. Cruise lines, and their customers, are beginning to see coronavirus cases on ships as more inevitable, even acceptable.

“I definitely learned that COVID is still out there,” Chatham said. “I have no one to blame but myself. Everyone else wasn’t masking. It felt back to normal.”

Nearly a year since cruising restarted in North American waters following a 15-month pandemic hiatus, many cruise vacation travelers appear willing to accept the risk of getting the infectious disease that’s gripped the world for two years.

Two of the global cruise line leaders based in Miami — Carnival and Royal Caribbean — are reporting record reservations for voyages, despite COVID-19 infecting the large majority of ships now sailing.

Of 92 cruise ships in U.S. waters on Thursday, 70 of them are under investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for coronavirus outbreaks. The CDC investigates outbreaks when at least 0.3% of a ship’s passengers and crew members test positive for the virus.

The federal health agency data shows the outbreaks are nowhere near as widespread as in December 2021 and January when the omicron variant emerged, and eventually all 92 ships sailing in the U.S. early this year were being scrutinized for onboard virus cases. In late December, the CDC had suggested all travelers, even those vaccinated, should avoid cruising.

In March, the CDC dropped all risk warnings related to COVID-19 on cruise ships, and left it to consumers to decide for themselves whether they would cruise or not. Even before the pandemic started in March 2020, cruise ship passengers being in close quarters for days on voyages were more susceptible to illnesses.

Cruise industry leaders have acknowledged that having coronavirus cases on ships is the new normal, but say the infection rates are less than in the general population and the industry’s public health safety protocols are more stringent than most public settings.

“Yes, there will be COVID on the ships, but there’s COVID everywhere in society,” said Arnold Donald, the soon-departing CEO of Carnival Corporation, at the Seatrade global cruise conference in April in Miami Beach. “Because people are vaccinated, the chances of them having a serious outcome from COVID is reduced. We have protocols to mitigate risk on ships.”

Cruise Lines International Association, the cruise industry trade and lobbying group in Washington, D.C., said in April its global market research found that 84% of people who had cruised in March said they would cruise again, and that 69% of people who never cruised are open to it.

“Overall, we are very pleased with the public response to and support for our protocols, which has allowed us to be the first major U.S. cruise line to return its full fleet back to operation,” Chris Chiames, Carnival’s chief spokesman, said in an email. “Our ships are full and onboard spending patterns indicate that our guests are just as happy to be back on board as we are to have them.”

He called Carnival’s public health protocols “flexible to scale up as needed” to respond to fluctuating pandemic situations and anticipate COVID-19 infections on ships.

Jonathan Fishman, director of corporate and incident communications for Royal Caribbean, said the cruise line has safely transported 2 million passengers since the North American cruise restart in June 2021.

“Cruising has consistently shown COVID-19 incidence rates lower than the rest of society, a testament to the rigorous protocols the industry has put in place and our collaboration with public health authorities,” Fishman said.

Norwegian Cruise Line, another big global cruise line based in Miami, did not respond to a reporter’s request for comment.

Through the ongoing pandemic, cruise lines never have shared publicly their respective figures on coronavirus infections among passengers and crew on individual ships, leaving passengers to discuss that and their experiences with the virus on social media.

For example, Chatham learned through a Facebook group that around 100 people on her Carnival Horizon cruise April 16 to 24 said they either got infected on the ship or soon after leaving the ship, which holds 5,510 passengers and crew.

Yet the loyal cruising fan base even among those on that recent Carnival Horizon voyage are undeterred by COVID-19. In the Facebook group of people who were on that infected ship with Chatham, one person made a poll to see if people were willing to cruise again. All 10 respondents to the poll said they were, “recovered and ready for my next cruise!”