Last week, American Queen Steamboat Company and Victory Cruise Lines announced that they’d require proof of a COVID-19 vaccine for all overnight guests, starting July 1, 2021. Saga Cruises, a U.K. cruise line, also is requiring guests to have received a vaccination prior to boarding.
So, is this guest vaccine requirement likely to be replicated as a policy for other lines or even industry-wide?
“I think vaccines will be required by all cruise lines, if not by the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention itself,” believes Steve Hirshan, senior vice president of sales, Avoya Travel Network. “Requiring a vaccine is a good thing as it will take the client’s guesswork out of who they are traveling with.”
Initially at least, a vaccine requirement could be a plus, according to Brad Tolkin, co-chairman/CEO, World Travel Holdings: “A lot of people I talk with mention they are flying Delta because of their policy of not selling the middle seat. This tells me something. But, this will not be a long-term possibility for the major airlines, hotels and cruise lines.”
Many sources, including Jackie Friedman, president of Nexion, believe that cruise lines’ policies towards vaccination will vary, depending on the line’s specific customer base. Smaller cruise lines catering to an older demographic may be more inclined to require vaccination, as older adults may have the potential to secure a vaccine appointment.
But for many other customers, a vaccine requirement is an impossible hurdle to jump over, as it could be considerable time before children are able to get the vaccine. “A family wanting to book a cruise certainly won’t leave their un-vaccinated young children at home,” emphasizes Friedman.
Countries of embarkation, debarkation and/or ports of call may also have vaccine requirements, she says and "cruise lines will need to carefully weigh those factors when deciding whether or not to require COVID-19 vaccination."
Rudi Schreiner, president and co-founder AmaWaterways tells us that while vaccine administration across various countries is encouraging, travel restrictions and testing regulations continue to evolve. “E.U. countries, and the airlines serving them, are working together to implement a new digital passenger form to register negative test results or proof of vaccine from a reliable source in order to hopefully ease travel restrictions,” he says.
"For river cruising, it won’t be us to require proof of vaccine or negative COVID test, as international travelers will have already been required to provide that information in order to enter the country," Schreiner says.
Once his line is back sailing, he says that river cruise lines in Europe will need to remain diligent and ensure all guests respect the regulations in each country visited. "Given how quickly regulations are changing, it is still too soon to finalize our online pre-cruise health questionnaire," says Schreiner.
Some advisors says that while it may be ideal for everyone (all guests and crew) to be vaccinated, much will depends on the supply chain and distribution logistics that cruise lines and travel advisors simply can’t control.
Will any potential vaccine requirement be adopted more frequently by niche/small ship lines or, in contrast, those cruise lines operating larger ships. From Tolkin's perspective, that requirement might not be limited solely to niche suppliers. Here's why: “I do believe that the larger vendors that require this will use it initially as a way to control occupancy," Tolkin says, noting that, as the travel industry emerges from this once-in-a-century tragedy, regardless if a government entity requires it, not many hotels or cruise lines are going to want to promote that they are comfortable operating at 100 percent occupancy.
Most of our experts said that one group on a cruise ship that likely will be required to provide proof of vaccination is the crew. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings has publicly said that it desires that for its three brands.
Friedman, who expects the crew to be required to vaccinate, tells us: "These people make the ship run in a variety of ways, and often can’t social distance in their interactions with guests and each other, so vaccinating this group can go a long way towards ensuring a healthy sailing."
Travel Agent participated in a press briefing on Friday with Captain Dan Blanchard, founder and CEO, UnCruise Adventures, an American-flagged line that expects to begin cruising in Alaska this spring. Asked if UnCruise will require the vaccine for guests, Blanchard responded: “Not right yet."
He explained that right now the small-ship line doesn’t have enough confidence yet that it can get its own crew vaccinated (given limitations in vaccine distribution). That said, “we are working with the state of Alaska to try to get priority for tourism workers as active essential workers.” He said the line believes that will happen, but the timing is uncertain as yet.
How could a guest vaccine requirement impact agency sales? “This is mixed,” said Gary Smith, franchise owner and vacation specialist, Dream Vacations in Eugene, OR. For some clients, he believes a vaccine requirement could have a good marketing benefit and would help sales.
“Others, it would be the opposite,” though, he says. “With the larger cruise lines heavily focused on the drive markets in the Southeast and Texas, I believe a vaccine requirement for larger cruise lines would be harmful to them," both in sales and how a large portion of the line’s client base feels about the vaccine. Some consumers don't want to take the vaccine.
For example, Smith’s agency has three couples traveling together on an upcoming AQSC voyage that will have the vaccine requirement. “Two of the three couples are perfectly fine with it,” Smith says, but notes that the other couple is refusing the vaccine and threatening to cancel, although they haven’t done so yet. “I think that is pretty indicative of what you’ll find overall.”
David Locke, owner of Seize the Seas, an independent agency in the Avoya Travel Network in Parkland, FL, pointed out that masks, now required onboard by many lines and the CDC, may be more onerous than getting a vaccine for many consumers.
“My clients have not complained about a possible vaccination requirement,” Locke notes, adding that “I've gotten more pushback on a mask-wearing requirement among my luxury and world cruise guests.” Vaccinations are viewed by those customers as a "one-off" inconvenience, while mask wearing is a daily requirement.
“I think, however, that even if everyone is vaccinated, masks are a good idea,” Locke points out, but agrees that "this may put a damper on bookings of longer cruises.”
That said, our trade sources also talked about the strong pent-up demand for travel and cruises. "Our clients are more focused on when they will be able to travel than on asking about if a vaccination will be required," Tolkin emphasizes.
His view is that "it's very likely that we will continue to see more entities requiring a vaccination. The question is for how long will this policy be in place? It is likely to just be a bridge to the future and not a permanent requirement.”