Cruises continue in Omicron era as CDC rules become voluntary, officers ‘clarify messages’

Cruise lines sailing in US waters can now decide if they want to follow COVID-19 guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which have frustrated would-be passengers and shipping lines over soaring cases of Omicron variants.

After the CDC’s framework for the Conditional Sailing Order (CSO) — in place for cruise lines since 2020 — expired last week, the health agency’s guidelines for cruise ships became voluntary for vessels operating in foreign and US waters.

Earlier, the CDC issued a warning to avoid sailing despite vaccination status, after the Omicron wave led to more than 90 ships sailing with passengers from the United States under CDC investigations due to cases of COVID-19. But the CSO officially ended on January 15 and moved to a voluntary framework.

Non-participating ships that sail internationally and operate in U.S. waters will be categorized as “grey” on the CDC’s cruise ship color status website – indicating the agency has not reviewed protocols for health and safety of operators. Meanwhile, cruise ships that withdraw and sail exclusively in US waters will not be listed on the website.

Although the CDC has made it clear that the new program is voluntary, it has recommended that cruise lines follow its COVID-19 mitigation guidelines.

“There’s a level of frustration because I think messaging through this pandemic has been so difficult, whether it’s at the local, county, or state level versus the federal level and the CDC,” Alex Sharpe, president and CEO of Signature Travel Network, told Yahoo Finance in a phone interview.

It’s unclear how many cruise ship operators are expected to join the discretionary program. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH) is committed to continue to apply the protocols on a voluntary basis, as part of a “commitment to health and safety,” the company said in a statement.

Separately, Tom McAlpin, President and CEO of Virgin Voyages, told Good Morning America in a recent interview that “of course we will adhere” to the voluntary protocols, noting that the recommendations “work.”

The CDC’s decision was also welcomed by International Association of Cruise Lines, an industrial group. It said the transition to a voluntary program “recognizes the cruise industry’s unwavering commitment to providing some of the highest levels of COVID-19 mitigation found in any industry,” the group wrote. .

“Heavy booking”

The Norwegian Pearl cruise ship is seen docked at the Port of Miami, after Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd canceled sailings amid growing fears of coronavirus infections linked to Omicron, in Miami, Florida, United States, on 5 January 2022. Photo taken with a drone. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Certainly, the pandemic continues to create headaches for the industry, forcing some cruise ships to cancel trips mid-term following coronavirus diagnoses. Meanwhile, Omicron has increased the number of positive cases among fully vaccinated crew members.

Recently, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Gem ship was forced to cancel a 10-night trip to the Caribbean due to “COVID-related circumstances”. Nonetheless, industry experts say there is pent-up demand from travellers.

“We are very busy booking. I would say the second half of ’22 and into ’23 and cruise lines already have ’24 itineraries,” Sharpe said. Yet the current environment has required travel agents to provide clarification on updated protocols for cruise ships.

“It’s all kind of blocked for that. And a lot of it is about clarifying messages,” Sharpe added. It’s one of the reasons Wall Street remains optimistic about how the industry’s outlook will look as the CDC’s order becomes voluntary.

“While we don’t think this changes anything about ship operations, we see it as a positive for sentiment on cruise stocks,” UBS analyst Robin Farley wrote in a note to reporters. customers this month.

“Cruise lines have already complied with the CDC’s suggestions, even in markets where they don’t have to, and we don’t expect that to change. We believe this will be positive sentiment for cruise stocks, further reducing the tail risk of any potential shutdowns,” the company added.

Dani Romero is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @daniromerotv

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