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Cruise experts weigh in on testing, tours and vaccination passports

The session was moderated by John Sifling of Broad Reach Maritime
Different models for cruise resumption have emerged around the world, while COVID-19 testing is likely to remain in the picture even as vaccination plays a role, and tour operators are managing to deliver enjoyable experiences despite protocols.

A Seatrade Cruise Virtual: Health & Safety panel on Monday saw experts honing in on these matters.

Simon Mockler, head of section, advisor - Americas, DNV, cited three resumption models. In Asia, Singapore Tourism Board's CruiseSafe accreditation is administered by DNV. European jurisdictions have taken more of a hands-off approach, with operators following guidelines from the European Maritime Safety Agency and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control on the path to get destination approvals.

And, in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has taken a 'prescriptive and more onerous approach,' Mockler said, with its conditional sailing order. This places all responsibility on cruise operators which need to self-certify compliance, though most lines are working with their own auditors to ensure that.

Overall, the COVID-19 focus now revolves around mitgating aerosol transmission, and the CDC last week stated the chance of infection through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects is low.

Subsequently, the agency also clarified its stance on cruise terminal operations, removing the 12-hour separation mandate.

'From a terminal operator's perspective, this makes things easier if you don't have to wait 12 hours to start cleaning,' noted Carlos Torres de Navarra, president, Worldwide Care Solutions.

However, Mockler cautioned that fomite transmission can't be entirely written off, but the order of risk severity is aerosol transmission in enclosed spaces, droplet transmission by close contact and then fomite contact.

Types of testing

Torres de Navarra reviewed the types of COVID-19 tests in the cruise context.

The 'gold standard' lab molecular PCR, which detects any traces of virus, requires three to four hours of processing in a full-scale lab and is the most costly. This is what some cruise lines are requiring within 72 hours before embarking to catch people who are sick at home, before they travel.

Antigen tests detect people in an infectious state, are fast (as quick as 15 minutes) and much less costly, making it feasible to test more frequently. Antigen tests are being widely used to screen passengers at embarkation in Europe and in Singapore, where the virus is well-controlled.

Torres de Navarra noted some new tests coming out are in between, marrying the advantages of antigen testing's speed and PCR's reliability. (Also new: breathalyzer technology, approved for use in Europe but not yet in the US.)

US-based lines that are following the CDC conditional sailing process require crew (and visiting contractors and shoreside personnel) to have a PCR test before embarking. This is supplemented by routine antigen or PCR testing on board, and when crew/workers leave the ship, they're subject to the testing requirements of the destination.

Vaccination mandates vary

Ultimately, vaccines will negate the need for testing but for now, testing is in the picture.

'Whether antigen testing or PCR testing will be required going forward, who knows?' Torres de Navarra said. 'It could be a hybrid where you have vaccination and some level of antigen testing to screen guests coming on board.'

Some lines are initially mandating vaccination for crew and/or passengers. Requirements vary. Royal Caribbean Group exempts under 18s, provided they present a negative COVID test; Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings is not exempting children, so they won't be able to travel with the line for at least the coming months.

'We're going to be dealing with a mix of passenger and destination population vaccination status,' Mockler said. 'That is why testing isn't going anywhere, at least while we still have a mixed vaccination uptake around the world.'

As to which vaccines, the panel felt that any World Health Organization or FDA-approved vaccine would be accepted, regardless of efficacy rate.

Vaccine passports

Vaccine passports, though, have become politicized, at least in the US. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has issued an executive order forbidding private companies from requiring them.

However, Mockler considers vaccination passports valid for cruising.

'We are international. We are moving between jurisdictions,' he said. 'We should expect that we will be subject to the same sort of expectations that other forms of international travel are going to have because we're going to be moving between populations with different levels of vaccination and different levels of community transmission. Proof of vaccination is going to be seen as a way of screening and risk reduction by more vulnerable populations.

'Most of us in this industry already have vaccination passports,' Mockler noted — the WHO's International Certificate of Prophylaxis, a yellow booklet that people carry with their regular passport.

Tour operations

At Chukka Caribbean Adventures, a leading tour provider with operations across five countries, the company underwent Jamaica's COVID-19 certification course and resumed operations July 21. Many thousands of resort visitors have been served since then, and cruises are to start in August with Norwegian Cruise Line's homeporting in Montego Bay.

Here's how Chukka handles testing: If an employee thinks they've been in contact with an infected person or if they don't feel well, they're either tested immediately or sent home to quarantine for 14 days. To encourage compliance, the company provides paid leave to anyone who tests positive or suspects they have it.

CEO Marc Melville knows of no visitor-employee COVID transmissions but said there had been cases of employees infecting each other.

Check-in at Chukka's facilities takes longer, and visitors must wear masks and distance, but guest satisfaction hasn't suffered.

'People are having a ball,' Melville said. Their 'desire to get out and have a good time is mitigating the inconvenience of the protocols you're putting in place.'

Destination regulations vary, but the No. 1 focus for tour operators is reduced capacity, with buses topping out at 70% and catamarans at 60% to 70% — 'not a bad thing' for the customer experience, Melville said.

Across destinations, there's a lot of uncertainty, though, about how many people will be allowed in a space at an attraction, 'especially if you're a nature/adventure company, and all that we do is outdoors.'

Paying more for tours?

When cruising restarts, one challenge is that lines don't want their passengers to mingle with others. Tour pricing is another question.

Melville doesn't see shore excursion prices going up to cover tour operators' added cost of doing business. Companies like Chukka are restructuring to adapt.

'Bottom line is this: If [the supplier] used to charge us per bus, we either work out a per-person rate or something to mitigate hitting the customer on the line,' Melville said.

He's also seeing more requests for luxury, high-end offerings — which do cost more — and in this case, cruise lines and their passengers are willing to pay.


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