As the cruise industry closes out a very challenging year, Royal Caribbean Group – which covers Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, and SilverSea – has provided an update on how COVID-19 and especially the Omicron variant has impacted business. While news headlines may appear disheartening with the increase in cases and ships being denied at ports of call, the outlook for 2022 is quite promising.
The Omicron Impact
For all cruise lines, the COVID-19 pandemic has had dramatic impacts not just due to the industry-wide shutdown that lasted from early 2020 well into 2021, but also because of changing onboard operations with updated health and safety protocols, pre-cruise testing requirements, vaccination status, and more.
The Omicron variant, which is far more easily transmitted but generally creates much milder symptoms, particularly in vaccinated individuals, has further changed cruise operations with short-term adjustments to itineraries, shipboard policies regarding masks, and pre-cruise testing procedures.
Aboard Royal Caribbean Group ships, more people are testing positive but without a corresponding increase in people becoming severely ill, as the majority of detected cases have remained asymptomatic or with only very mild symptoms.
According to a year-end press release, since cruising restarted in the U.S. in June 2021, Royal Caribbean Group has carried 1.1 million guests with 1,745 people testing positive – a positivity rate of 0.02%, with only 41 people needing hospitalization. None of the Omicron cases have been severe or needed to be taken to a hospital.
These encouraging numbers – far lower than positivity rates and hospitalizations on land – are largely a result of almost everyone onboard having been vaccinated and having a negative test before boarding, as well as strict onboard protocols.
“Omicron is having a big short-term impact on everyone, but many observers see this as a major step towards COVID-19 becoming endemic rather than epidemic,” said Richard Fain, Chairman & CEO of Royal Caribbean Group. “We don’t like to see even one case, but our experience is a fraction of the comparable statistics of virtually any other comparable location or industry.”
Royal Caribbean Group’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Calvin Johnson emphasizes: “The company is navigating through the ever-evolving information on the Omicron variant. Our case count has spiked, but the level of severity is significantly milder. We will remain nimble and in constant contact with health authorities. For example, even before Omicron, we have been giving all our crewmembers booster shots as they became eligible.”
Cruise lines are continually adjusting their protocols and itineraries to comply with the safest recommendations and requirements of different ports of call. While this does cause short-term disruption for passengers, it also helps refine procedures for long-term strength.
Looking Forward to 2022 and 2023
While the immediate impact of Omicron has meant some cancellations and rebookings as passengers adjust to quickly altered expectations, Royal Caribbean Group is optimistic about cruising in the months to come.
Occupancies and bookings for sailings in the first half of 2022 remain below historical levels, but this has been expected. Sailings for the second half of 2022, however, are meeting historical ranges, even at higher prices with and without Future Cruise Credits (FCCs).
The current spike in cases, driven by the Omicron variant, has impacted holiday travel expectations. Disruptions in air travel and different countries changing requirements have also had a noticeable short-term impact on cruising, including what services and activities can be offered onboard as well as the availability of ports of call.
To date, of the 331 destinations visited by Royal Caribbean Group ships, 16 have either been cancelled or significantly modified to accommodate changed requirements. The company expects similar disruptions to continue in the short term, but adjustments are likely to even out as the world adjusts to current trends and the full impact of Omicron becomes more apparent.
“We are constantly learning and adjusting as Omicron appears to be ushering in a new phase in the fight against COVID-19. We expect these factors to have a negative impact in the short term but are optimistic they will lead us to a more pervasive but less severe health environment,” said Fain. “Taken together, this should enable us to produce a strong transitional year in 2022 and a very strong 2023.”
What does this mean for eager cruise travelers? Stay flexible for cruise expectations – both onboard and with respect to itineraries – for the next few months, but don’t be afraid to plan for cruises later in 2022 and beyond. Keeping alert to changes in cruises can help passengers plan memorable and safe vacations as cruising continues to adapt to the ever-evolving post-pandemic world.