The emergence of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is a potential existential threat to the cruise industry, but the Delta variant fallout provides a hint of the potential impact it may have.
When news of the emergence of a new variant of COVID-19 first broke, cruise stocks and other ‘recovery’ markets were hit hard on fears of renewed travel restrictions and even lockdowns, which would severely undermine the resumption of cruises worldwide.
The travel restrictions imposed on South Africa in particular, the epicenter of the current Omicron outbreak, serve as a chilling example of the impact a wave of Omicron infections could have on the local tourism industry.
South Africa has essentially been frozen out of the global tourism industry, flights have been suspended, travellers from the country are either banned or face strict quarantine rules, making travel to the country unfeasible, and hotels and cruises have faced widespread cancellations as a result.
It’s a scenario no cruise destination wants, and many COVID-19 health and safety protocols have been tightened by cruise lines as a result. Disney Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line are requiring guests as young as 5 years old to be vaccinated, and MSC Cruises has extended its vaccine mandate to the entire fleet worldwide, while many cruise lines are restricting bookings only to fully vaccinated passengers.
The primary concern of health authorities around the world is the apparent increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant. The World Health Organization suggests it poses a “very high” risk globally and the “likelihood of potential further spread of Omicron at the global level is high.”
If it is found to be more contagious than the Delta variant, which was itself twice as contagious as previous strains, then it would be a significant threat to the cruise industry.
Cruise ships are already accused of being a breeding ground for the spread of coronavirus, despite most cruise lines implementing health and safety protocols that go far and above those of any other sector of the tourism industry.
The industry’s handling of the Delta variant last year can serve as a guide for passengers booked on cruises in the near future, or thinking about doing so. When Delta began to increase case numbers globally earlier this year, the cruise industry wasn’t significantly affected.
Cruises continued to resume, and consumer confidence in the industry remained buoyant, with a Cruise Critic poll finding that 59 percent of readers believed the health protocols being put in place by the cruise lines made cruising safer than other forms of travel.
On August 20th, 2021 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance with a new warning that high-risk adults, no matter their vaccination status, should not cruise, it had not updated its guidance with regards to the cruise industry and Omicron at the time of writing.
In fact, on October 26th, just a month before the emergence of the Omicron variant, the CDC announced that health and safety guidelines for cruise ships would become voluntary from January 15th, 2021. At the time of writing, those plans had not changed. When the CDC made the announcement, it was anticipated that cruise lines may begin to do away with many of their anti-COVID-19 health and safety measures.
The emergence of Omicron means that these are likely to stay: particularly pre-boarding tests, vaccine mandates, face masks in public spaces onboard, and some form of social distancing, along with the usual focus on hand hygiene and enhanced sanitation around the ship.
This was the approach that cruise lines took to the Delta variant, with rules tightened, rather than cruises cancelled. A key difference between Delta and Omicron, however, is its transmissibility. That greater transmissibility will be a major challenge for cruise lines, as it is likely to cause larger outbreaks of COVID-19 aboard ships, rather than small, isolated cases, as has been the case thus far.
The Delta variant caused COVID-19 cases aboard cruise ships to increase significantly during the latter half of 2021, as shown in the graph below.
In July, there were reports of 54 passengers and crew being infected aboard cruise ships globally, while in August that number increased to 70 for the month, largely as a result of a crew outbreak aboard Carnival Vista, and in September it jumped to 113, largely as a result of a widespread outbreak aboard MSC Virtuosa in the UK.
Although none of these outbreaks was directly attributed to the Delta variant, it was the dominant strain of COVID-19 at the time. It was discovered in India in December, 2020, and was the dominant strain of the virus by July, in both Europe, and the United States.
For Omicron, the impact is certain to be much greater, and may force some cruise lines to cancel cruises, either due to outbreaks onboard, fast-changing travel restrictions, or a combination of the two.
As with South Africa and the Omicron variant, the Delta variant earlier this year also prompted widespread travel restrictions on India, and it is these flight bans and quarantine requirements that will likely have the greatest impact on the cruise industry.
Cruise lines that rely on fly-cruise markets will be at increased risk of having to cancel or amend itineraries if there are local Omicron outbreaks that prompt travel restrictions, while cruise lines homeporting in countries with a large source market, such as the United States, UK, Greece, Italy and Germany, will be less vulnerable to such disruptions (unless the destinations to which they cruise introduce stricter travel restrictions).
It should be noted that MSC Cruises had just begun its South African cruise season out of Durban and Cape Town in South Africa at the time of writing, despite the country having essentially been frozen out of the global travel industry.
This is because its South African season is only open to the domestic market, and so was not affected by the travel restrictions. Other cruise lines homeporting in Cape Town, such as Norwegian Cruise Line, and Hapag-Lloyd, were forced to cancel or amend their itineraries.