During the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the industries hit hardest by negative news was the cruise sector.
Hard lessons learned from that time have paved a way forward for an industry that is more prepared and organized in its health and safety response than ever before, officials say. And as traffic numbers rebound in Canada and around the globe, stalwarts say the industry is showing the public that cruise lines are one of the safest ways to travel today.
“Cruise was an early adopter of first procedures and requirements that have become commonplace now,” said Barry Penner, legal adviser to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) in Canada. “We were at the front end of that effort after getting medical advice from experts contracted by the cruise lines themselves to provide that advice.”
While the Canadian ban on cruise ships was lifted last November, the industry restarted in other parts of the world as early as July 2020, and the two-years-plus experience of operating with COVID protocols has meant that cruise lines have had a lot of time to integrate best practices into their operations.
“By and large, those procedures have been quite successful,” said Penner, a former B.C. cabinet minister who has served on the board of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia, and as chair of the Insurance Corp. of British Columbia. “COVID is with us and exists on land, in the air and also at sea. The question is: How do you manage it? And we’ve been at the leading edge of that.”
Currently, that means all passengers older than 12 on cruise ships in Canada must be fully vaccinated. Some cruise lines require vaccination for children age five and older.
Passengers are also required to have a valid COVID test prior to boarding.
Those who test positive onboard a vessel must quarantine for 10 days and cannot partake in onshore excursions in Canada, Transport Canada says.
Meanwhile, most cruise lines have dropped mask mandates for passengers onboard, but many observe limited mask requirements – especially when passengers are in enclosed spaces like the theatre, casino and cruise ship terminals.
In a written statement, CLIA’s Pacific Northwest section, based in Vancouver, said the industry is also remaining flexible given the potential for sudden restriction changes in the current COVID environment.
Kelley Lee, Simon Fraser University health sciences professor and Canada research chair in global health governance, said the industry response shows that there is an understanding of how devastating another outbreak would be to the sector’s survival. But she added that there are still measures that could be taken in Canada to improve passenger safety – like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s dashboard for tracking COVID-positive cases on specific vessels.
“They have a ranking system so you can check the actual ship that you are going to go on, to see how they have been doing,” Lee said. “They don’t have that in Canada. I understand it is hard to collect data, but we need to have better information for the passengers.… It’s not about preventing business, but it’s just so we know what’s happening, and then maybe we can manage it better to keep the ships going.”
According to CLIA Pacific Northwest, the resumption of the B.C.-Alaska routes this year has been encouraging so far. In May, port reports from Vancouver showed 108,762 passengers on 51 ship calls; Victoria recorded 98,739 passengers with 53 ship calls.
Both passenger numbers are down from 2019 levels during the same month (down from 193,393 for Vancouver and 118,514 for Victoria), but ship calls have increased (from 47 in Vancouver and 44 in Victoria).
“Capacity was light partly by design at the outset,” Penner said. “Cruise lines were maintaining social distancing on board at the outset of the season; and as things have unfolded – as some of the government requirements have been reduced – there’s been a higher occupancy level seen on board the ships as the season’s progressed. So things aren’t completely back to normal, but things are certainly a lot closer to that than they were even a few months ago.”
Penner added that he understands some travellers may have hesitations about returning to any mode of transport, but he said the cruise industry has done everything in its power to make it the safest possible experience, because the sector does not want another worldwide disruption like the one brought about by the initial wave of COVID in March 2020.