CDC Says "Avoid Cruising;" Travel Industry Reacts Strongly

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) increased its Cruise Travel Health Notice (THN) to Level 4, its most severe warning. It’s recommending that consumers avoid cruise travel even if they’ve been vaccinated. This comes amid the global spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

The CDC said that between November 30 and December 14, cruise ships operating in U.S. waters reported 162 cases of COVID-19 to the CDC. Between December 15 and 29, cruise ships sailing in U.S. waters reported 5,013 COVID-19 cases to the CDC.

But the numbers can be deceiving, stress travel industry officials. Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) calls the decision by the CDC to raise the travel level for ocean cruising “particularly perplexing considering that cases identified on cruise ships consistently make up a very slim minority of the total population onboard—far fewer than on land—and the majority of those cases are asymptomatic or mild in nature, posing little to no burden on medical resources onboard or onshore.”

Swift Reaction

“Cruising isn’t the cause of the spread of COVID-19,” emphasizes Margie Jordan, owner of Jordan Executive Travel Service, Jacksonville, FL. “It’s to the point that we’re punishing an industry that’s gone to extreme measures to ensure those onboard are safe.”

She notes that COVID is rampant in the U.S., the decision to travel is up to the traveler and every precaution should be taken to stay safe. But Jordan also puts things in perspective this way: “Florida had 46,000-plus reported cases in a single day last week but our doors are still open to travelers.”

Brad Tolkin, co-CEO/chairman, World Travel Holdings tells Travel Agent: “We are very disappointed in the CDC’s decision to increase its COVID-19 Travel Health Notice level for cruise travel. Since cruising has restarted, more than one million passengers have cruised with a significantly lower incidence rate of COVID-19 than on land. This proves that the health and safety protocols set forth by the cruise lines are working.”

He points out that the cruise industry is the only industry in the U.S. travel and tourism sector that is requiring both vaccinations and testing for crew and guests, which should instill confidence in vacation goers.

“Cruising is safer than standing in the checkout lines at your supermarket, shopping in malls or attending sporting events where you don’t know if the people around you are vaccinated or have been tested,” says Tolkin.

Decision Is Off Base

"This announcement by the CDC seems capricious, and political at best, and does nothing to take into account the actual positive cases to date," according to John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Group, a business unit of Internova Travel Group.

“Cases per traveling client/crew member are lower at sea than on land,” Lovell explains. So he asks this question. "Why the continued negative view of cruising by the CDC?  If we let the science determine things—as it should—than the Level 4 warning is way off base.”

CLIA’s statement also acknowledges that while "no setting can be immune from this virus," it's also says that cruising provides one of the highest levels of demonstrated mitigation against the virus: "Cruise ships offer a highly controlled environment with science-backed measures, known testing and vaccination levels far above other venues or modes of transportation and travel, and significantly lower incidence rates than land.”

Sharply criticizing the CDC action, Alex Sharpe, president and CEO, Signature Travel Network, tells Travel Agent:  “I am hoping the entire world is sick of these knee-jerk, finger-pointing reactions."

He says that there's "no doubt that Omicron has certainly impacted travel, but from my vantage point onboard Celebrity Edge this week with my family, cruising is not only pretty darn close to normal, it is remarkably safe.”

Sharpe emphasizes that while cruise line infection rates have gone up, that’s “from a base that was below shore-side and in an environment where everyone is tested, not just those who feel symptoms and are able to find a testing site."

So, he hopes “the millions who have safely sailed since the cruise restart will make sure we balance this misinformation." He also cites both the CDC and the consumer press for "their misrepresentation of cruising.”

Lacking in Science and Facts

For David Harris, CEO, Ensemble Travel Group, "this is yet another unwarranted attempt to make the travel industry—and cruising in particular—the scapegoat for the increased spread and transmission of COVID and [specifically], the new Omicron variant.  Simply put, the science and the facts just don't support this change."

Harris says "the positivity rate aboard a cruise ship is much lower than onshore—33 percent, according to data provided by CLIA."

He also points out that no other economic sector or society in general is doing the level of testing that the cruise industry is doing—nearly 10 million tests per week, which is 21 times the rate of testing in the U.S. 

"We know that more testing will yield more positive cases, but it’s still significantly lower than in the general public," Harris says. "CLIA and the entire cruise industry have done a tremendous job of working with the CDC throughout the entire duration of the pandemic to communicate its commitment to ensuring the health and safety of passengers and crew alike."

He finds it "incredibly disappointing and frustrating that we have not been able to make more progress in helping government officials understand that the cruise industry is doing more than any other aspect of society to mitigate the spread of COVID through testing, vaccination requirements, screening, sanitation, enhanced ventilation, mask-wearing, and physical distancing." 

Harris tells Travel Agent that it's imperative for the industry to come together and push back on such decisions as the CDC's this week. He believes the industry needs to highlight and communicate the facts and the science—and not give in to "outdated and disproven messaging that travel is responsible for spreading COVID.”

Stay the Course

Meanwhile, cruise lines are continuing to sail and stay the course. From one line’s perspective, "the change in recommendation has not impacted scheduled itineraries or our stringent health and safety protocols which include full vaccination of 100 percent of guests and crew,” Norwegian Cruise Line says in its statement.

Norwegian says its mandatory vaccination policy is coupled with universal pre-embarkation testing of guests at the terminal, mask requirements on board and numerous additional layers of protection against COVID-19. “As a result of our comprehensive health and safety protocols, we believe that vacationing onboard any one of our 28 cruise ships is safer, and guests are better protected from contacting COVID-19, than in any other general population setting,” the line adds. 

Norwegian also says that it takes health and safety matters extremely seriously and will continue to work closely with the CDC and other global and domestic authorities to protect its guests, crew and the communities visited.

CLIA says it's disappointed and disagrees with the CDC's decision to single out the cruise industry—given that the cruise industry continues to go above and beyond compared to other sectors. But the association also says that it remains committed to working collaboratively with the CDC in the interest of public health and safety.

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