When cruising resumed in Europe last year, cruise lines restricted guests from going ashore unless they were on an excursion booked through the cruise line. At least one major cruise line will resume cruising in North America without this requirement.
Why Ship-Sponsored Excursions Have Been Required
Cruise lines like MSC, who have been cruising in Europe have allowed guests to disembark in port, but only as part of shore excursions that the cruise lines have arranged. The reason is that the cruise lines can work with select tour-operators, and have ship staff escorting them to ensure health and safety measures are followed. Other tour-operators may not be as cautious and wouldn't likely be escorted by ship staff. The strictest of rules on the ship wouldn't necessarily matter if guests disembarked and disregarded social distancing and mask protocols - potentially risking infection for guests back on board as well as locals in the port of call. In fact, in late 2020, MSC refused boarding to a group of guests who went ashore with a sponsored excursion but then strayed from the group.
NCL Will Allow Guest to Disembark at Will
Norwegian Cruise Lines recently announced that they will not be requiring guests to take shore excursions booked through the cruise line - instead allowing guests to disembark at will in port. There is one caveat though, and that is that the port of call must allow this. In other words, NCL is saying that if the port you're visiting doesn't require an escorted tour of some kind, they won't either - but it seems reasonable that some cities won't want tourists roaming around unrestricted. Small businesses in ports stand to benefit either way - as excursions in ports, even when sold through the cruise line, are still run by local businesses. There are various considerations when deciding whether or not to book a shore excursion through the cruise line, even independent of COVID restrictions.
Why NCL's Plan Makes Sense
MSC's requirement in Europe may seem logical - it does to us. What is NCL doing that allows them to forgo this requirement and leave the option with local authorities? Vaccinations. NCLH (NCL's parent company) was among the first major lines to announce that every single guest, regardless of age, must be vaccinated in order to sail - while also following other strict protocols onboard. MSC's sailings started last summer, before any members of the public (outside of trials) had been vaccinated for COVID-19. This requirement, combined with the other precautions taken on board, would seem to put NCL at a much lower risk of community spread on their ships, even if a guest was exposed in port.
Other Cruise Lines Exploring Their Options
Several cruise lines (including NCL) will begin sailing the Caribbean and Europe in June of this year. These initial sailings will depart from non-US ports, as the CDC continues to update their requirements to allow for the safe resumption of cruising. For these sailings, Celebrity is requiring all guests 18+ to be fully vaccinated, but children need only a negative test result. When cruising does resume from the US, however, initial sailings will likely have 95%+ vaccination rates, so Celebrity has said that they're working with various governments to assess their willingness to accept guests going ashore outside of organized tours. This means Celebrity, and likely other cruise lines associated with their parent company, Royal Caribbean Group, are receptive to the idea - though depending on where the CDC lands, it could also mean that Celebrity reconsiders vaccination requirements for non-US sailings if it opens up shore excursion options for guests.
Get a Front Seat to Changes - or Watch from the Apex
The first cruises out of North America will be interesting to watch. Not only will they drive enthusiasm about cruising for months to come, but they'll be the beginning of what is likely to months of changes in protocols to meet the evolving science and state of the pandemic. On June 5th, we'll be on Celebrity Millennium, the first ship from a major cruise line to sail the Caribbean in over a year - and you can join us virtually or in person to see what it's like. We'll also sail from the US once possible, and cover all of the changes. If you'd prefer to wait to sail until some of the dust settles, it's understandable. You can join us on January 8th, 2022 aboard Celebrity's newest ship, Celebrity Apex, for the first CruiseHabit Group Cruise! Excellent rates, special amenities, and exclusive activities are guaranteed to everyone in our group.