What's the Cruise Impact of Bermuda's Same-Sex Marriage Repeal?

Looking not just for love but for marriage on the high seas? Well, if you’re a member of the LGBT community and want to get legally married on “The Love Boat” or any Bermuda-flagged vessel, it’s not going to happen – at least right now.  

In late 2017, Bermuda’s new Domestic Partnership Act 2017 was passed, replacing same-sex marriage (authorized just six months earlier after a Bermuda Supreme Court ruling on equality) with a "domestic partnership" or civil union.

Ship Registration

What’s the cruise industry impact? Most notably, any ships registered in Bermuda, such as those of Princess Cruises, P&O, Cunard Line and others, certainly are impacted by the new law.

In fact, about 10 percent of the international cruise industry's fleet is said to be Bermuda-flagged. Any vessels flying the Bermuda flag with ship registration in the island nation are legally bound by the laws of Bermuda. 

So Bermudan-flagged vessels cannot legally “marry” LGBTQ+ guests onboard. That's not solely in Bermuda. It's anywhere across the globe, whether the ship is sailing in Asia or Europe

Many lines have for a long time been offering same-sex commitment ceremonies onboard, regardless of flagging, and still do that.  

But in 2017, Princess Cruises began performing legal same-sex marriages onboard its ships after a Bermuda Supreme Court ruling paved the way for that. Similarly, Cunard Line conducted its first same-sex marriage at sea earlier this year. 

So for a short period of time, it was legal to do so. Now it's not. Fortunately, same-sex marriages already performed will not be impacted. 

Cruise Line Impact 

But now that the law has changed, we asked Princess what impact the law’s change was having, and they provided this statement: 

“We are aware of the news from Bermuda relative to the Domestic Partnership Act 2017 which now, having been signed off by the Bermudan Governor, replaces the legalization of same sex marriage in Bermuda and we recognize the impact this will have for our 13 ships registered there.

“Although symbolic same sex couple commitment ceremonies are not new to Princess, we were delighted by the change in law last May that allowed us to conduct legal same sex marriages onboard our ships. We are disappointed with this change because love and romance are at the heart of who we are as one of the world’s leading cruise vacation brands.

Along with our sister brands, we will now be working closely with the Bermudan authorities to understand the legalities of Domestic Partnership Act 2017.”

Cunard’s statement expressed similar thoughts, as its three ships are registered in Bermuda. 

Some other countries that are popular for ship flagging/registration do have laws that permit gay marriage, among them Malta.

But while it's legal to marry guests onboard, the line itself must decide whether to do so. Some do, some don't. 

Maltese-flagged Celebrity Cruises recently issued a press release about its first gay wedding at sea. It’s important to note, though, that all lines, including Celebrity – even if they are able to marry guests at sea – cannot do so within three miles of Bermuda or while docked there.

Putting things in perspective, most lines, Maltese-flagged or otherwise, simply don't marry any guests onboard, regardless of sexual orientation. 

Among those is Holland America Line, flagged in the Netherlands. “We do not actually perform legal weddings on board our ships as our captains are not licensed to marry people," spokesman Erik Elvejord told Travel Agent.

“Any weddings held on board are ceremonial only and if any couple wants to get officially married on board they need to bring their own officiant and follow all local regulations," he said. 

Trade Reaction

Darren Burn, founder of United Kingdom-based LGBTQ+ travel firm OutOfOffice.com, told Bermuda's Royal Gazette that his agency had couples interested in marrying at sea and now they couldn't, so his agency will send them where they're more welcome. 

In fact, Burns was so outraged about the turn of events in Bermuda that he publicly suggested that cruise lines that are Bermuda-flagged change their ship registration. He also suggested cruise lines change their itineraries.

“As a gay man, Bermuda’s unprecedented roll-back of marriage equality is saddening," says Ed Stillman, travel advisor, OASIS Travel Network, Millerton, NY. "As a travel advisor, the decision adds — at the very least — a layer of consideration when planning travel for my LGBTQ+ clients. Tolerance and a welcoming society are factors that I weigh in when presenting destination options to clients. As more societies are becoming even more welcoming, it becomes easier to simply not consider those that remain intolerant, or in this case, regress back to intolerance toward the LGBTQ+ community.”

Within the U.S., "I was quite disappointed to learn that Bermuda made this decision as I personally believe that all couples should be able to legally marry whoever they love on sea and on land," says Vicky Garcia, COO and co-owner, Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative.

Garcia says that the franchise group trains agents to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible while selling travel, and also to be aware of the laws, traditions and restrictions for LGBTQ+ clients to assure they have a great vacation.

"Looking ahead, agents should proactively guide their clients to a cruise line such as Celebrity Cruises, that has the authority under its ship's flag to legally marry LGBTQ+ couples at sea or, while not ideal, advise the couples who have already booked on Bermuda-flagged ships to legally marry stateside and then do an onboard symbolic ceremony," says Garcia.

She adds that Cruise Planners is supportive of the cruise lines and destinations that are supporting legal LGBTQ+ marriage.

Moving Forward 

It's important to note that although Bermuda's law has changed, the island does have legal protections for LGBTQ+ travelers and citizens alike when it comes to sexual orientation. Sources say Bermuda's laws are, in fact, more friendly to the LGBTQ+ community than those of many other island destinations globally. 

In addition, Bermuda's tourism authority historically has been supportive of LGBTQ+ travelers, as are many hospitality entities on the island. The tourism authority is also a member of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), and wrote a letter to the Bermuda Senate earlier this year opposing the change in law. 

But the change in law did occur. For the cruise industry, the impact is clear. Same-sex couples simply cannot get married on any Bermuda-flagged ship, and LGBTQ+couples sailing on any ship into Bermuda cannot go ashore and get married. That's the case for now at least.   

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