On cruises that allow it, the unvaccinated are second-class citizens

Royal Caribbean’s 4,275-passenger Freedom of the Seas has resumed crossings from Miami to the Bahamas with two classes of passengers on board – those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and those who have not. Stitched guests, identified by special bracelets, take full advantage of the ship; those who are not protected against the virus will not even be able to enter the sushi bar, casino or spa.

Freedom is the first ship to leave the United States without a vaccination requirement, and it is also the first to leave Miami, the nation’s cruise capital. Despite all of the city‘s influence on the cruise industry, it has also proven to be a tough place.

Casino games on Celebrity Edge, the first revenue-generating cruise ship to leave the United States after the pandemic-induced hiatus. Bloomberg / Eva Marie Uzcategu

to restart business, given that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has banned businesses from requiring vaccination cards.

“The cruise experience benefits from being impromptu,” says Jukka Laitamaki, tourism marketing expert and professor at the NYU School of Professional Studies Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality. Cruisers are generally free to go out where they want, do whatever they want, and make friends. But unvaccinated cruisers on Freedom will find much of that restricted.

“It is cruise lines’ worst nightmare to have separate areas for the vaccinated and the unvaccinated,” Laitamaki said.

The system turned out to be necessary. Even on cruises with strict COVID-19 vaccine requirements for adults, issues have already arisen. At the end of June, Royal had to pay to repatriate two unvaccinated teenagers who tested positive – and their families – from the Bahamas. Sister Line Celebrity also had an incident where two asymptomatic guests tested positive while sailing out of St. Maarten. (Remember that you can still carry the coronavirus even if you are vaccinated.)

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s rules for cruise lines require lines to enforce masks and social distancing when unvaccinated cruisers are on board. But companies have a certain discretion on the finer points.

Royal Caribbean’s list of restrictions on freedom, released in mid-June, is long. It applies to all of the ship’s crossings in July and likely to four other ships the line plans to launch from Florida this summer, with capacities of up to 6,680 passengers.

Those with a hole punched in their SeaPass – indicating they weren’t stung or refused to show a vaccine card – will be separated on a deck in the main dining room and will be banned from some of the best and most intimate paid dining venues. (This also includes families with unvaccinated children, as long as they stay together.) The popular maritime-themed Schooner Bar pub and Viking Crown nightclub, casino, art auctions and pool and Indoor solarium bar will be prohibited. . Gatherings such as the 1970s-themed party will only be open to vaccinated guests. If you’re not immune and want to catch a show, you sit in a separate area at the back of the theater. And you can only use the gym at specific times.

At least for now, wearing a mask is mandatory inside (but not outside) everyone on board Liberté when not eating or drinking, although some places that are not open that vaccinated guests can override the rule.

The trip will also cost more for unvaccinated clients. Anyone over the age of 12 who does not voluntarily present proof of vaccination will be required to provide a negative result of a COVID-19 PCR test performed within three days of departure. They will also have to pay for a second dockside test and a third when disembarking on the last day for a total of $ 136 or $ 178 per person, depending on navigation.

In addition, Royal requires unvaccinated travelers leaving Florida to purchase travel insurance – at least $ 25,000 per person for medical coverage and $ 50,000 per person for medical evacuation – from August 1 through the end of 2021. On a weeklong cruise, this can add $ 200 or more to the combined rate for an unvaccinated family of four.

And it’s right on the ship. Each port of call has its own constantly evolving rules, with some requiring guests without immunity to stay on board or to limit themselves to certain shore excursions.

For cruise passengers, who have already lost billions of dollars to the pandemic and are just getting back to business, the two-class system can impact the revenue stream. Onboard spending represented 28.3% of Royal Caribbean’s total revenue in 2019, according to Brian Egger, senior analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. If there are a lot of unvaccinated passengers, these numbers may end up being suppressed.

So far this is not the case. Only 7% of the passengers on the first Freedom cruise are unvaccinated and most are children. At this rate, the loss of expenses on board can reach about $ 50,000 – a drop in the bucket on a ship that, say, brings in $ 1.5 million per trip. Mark Tamis, senior vice president of hotel operations at Royal, said lost revenue didn’t even enter into the equation.

But the line is currently only sailing at 40% capacity to enable social distancing and test new health protocols – with plans to increase capacity throughout the summer. Additionally, immune guests may not want to meddle in unpitched, potentially hampering ticket sales or conduct cancellations that have been high since Royal announced their protocol.

“People who aren’t vaccinated don’t want restrictions,” says Mindy Breitman, travel consultant at Cruise Planners, who has been busy responding to cancellation requests. “And people who have been vaccinated don’t want to wear masks because of the unvaccinated people on board,” she said.

Cruisers and cruise executives agree that a vaccine requirement would be the ideal way forward. The CDC recommends that at least 95% of passengers and crew be vaccinated. And in fact, Royal’s sister line, Celebrity Cruises and Carnival Cruise Line, appear to be putting DeSantis’ executive order to the test, with carefully worded policies that boil down to vaccine requirements for everyone on board.

In places like Alaska and Galveston, Texas, where they have had a choice, major cruise lines have also only allowed vaccinated guests on board, making exceptions only for children. Norwegian Cruise Line says its ships will only sail with vaccinated passengers until October. And all the lines aim for a 100% vaccination of the crews.

Richard Fain, president of Royal Caribbean Cruises, parent company of Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises, has said on several occasions that he would prefer all guests to receive the jab, adding that surveys show that more than 90% of guests from the line are vaccinated. Micky Arison, president of Carnival Corp. (parent company of brands such as Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Holland America Line), took to Twitter to urge vaccines.

Cruisers don’t need a lot of persuasion. Most show a strong desire to sail with other vaxed passengers – a survey of 5,000 readers of the popular Cruise Critic website found last month that 89% would sail if vaccinations were mandatory.

But there has also been some setback. When Mike Bayley, President and CEO of Royal Caribbean, recently explained the policies regarding unvaccinated guests on Facebook, the hundreds of responses he received included both applause and vitriol from opponents adopting anti-vax rhetoric.

“My only request is to share your opinion or comments in a polite manner,” Bayley said in a follow-up. “If you could read some messages I received!” It’s scary!”

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