Several ocean cruise lines that quietly retained their Covid vaccination or pre-boarding testing policies are now ready to phase them out.
Cunard Line, Lindblad Expeditions, Ponant and Windstar Cruises plan to eliminate or curtail their vaccination or testing requirements in the coming months except when sailing to destinations with Covid restrictions.
"When combined with the variants being much milder plus widespread availability of vaccines and medical treatments, the risk factors are considerably lower now, giving us the confidence to lift the requirement," said Christopher Prelog, president of Windstar Cruises. The line will scrap its Covid vaccine requirement on June 1.
The decision and timing for Windstar was influenced by the U.S. government's plan to end its declared Public Health Emergency for Covid-19 on May 11, after which it will transition to a new phase of managing the pandemic.
Prelog said Windstar kept in line with national and international best practices, which was what many of the line's guests said they wanted.
"We regularly polled our guests, and the majority told us that they felt much more comfortable sailing on an all-vaccinated ship," said Prelog. That included customers who switched from other lines and first-time cruisers, he said. "They wanted to feel safe traveling again."
Ponant, which acquired Paul Gauguin Cruises, also plans to drop its vaccination requirements. The policy change will go into effect on April 1.
"After careful consideration of the lower incidence of Covid infections, combined with the higher rate of vaccinated and boosted guests, we have decided to relax our policy," said Navin Sawhney, CEO of Americas at Ponant.
Lindblad Expeditions is also re-evaluating its protocols ahead of the expiration of the federal emergency. The line requires guests to be vaccinated but expects to change its protocols in May, according to a spokesman.
"I think health concerns are going down dramatically," Dolf Berle, CEO of Lindblad Expeditions, said during the company's Q4 earnings call last month. "We're seeing very few incidences of Covid on the ships. That obviously gets back to guests that are communicating with each other and their community. I think people are feeling safe."
While other major cruise lines repealed their vaccination requirements last fall, ships that travel to destinations with Covid restrictions are required to adhere to local policies.
That means passengers would likely be required to test or be vaccinated on world voyages and other complicated itineraries, said Matt Gleaves, vice president of commercial for Cunard North America and Australasia. The line currently operates with a patchwork of requirements depending on where its ships go.
Some sailings have additional testing requirements based on the length of the cruise, the ports of call, the country requirements or the ship's onward destination, Gleaves said.
For instance, the Queen Elizabeth will soon sail to Japan, which will require passengers to undergo Covid testing before embarkation and all guests age 18 and older to be vaccinated and boosted.
In contrast, a sailing on the Queen Mary 2 from Australia to New York by way of Cape Town and Southampton, England will require a pre-boarding Covid test.
"It is our intention that the majority of voyages in the future will not require guests to be vaccinated or undertake pre-cruise testing," Gleaves said.
Cunard plans to drop vaccination requirements for guests on the Queen Victoria and Queen Mary 2 beginning April 23 and on the Queen Elizabeth on June 8, unless a specific country or voyage requires vaccination. The line has a chart on its website where it notes which sailings have "enhanced" vaccination or testing requirements.
Other lines appear to remain dedicated to a vaccination or testing policy, including Viking, which requires all passengers to be vaccinated, and Aurora Expeditions, which requires both vaccinations with a booster and preboard testing. Both declined to answer questions about their policies.
Several travel advisors said most guests are no longer concerned about whether fellow passengers on a cruise are fully vaccinated.
"When cruising was just starting up again, we found that the vaccine requirement really helped us close some sales," said Thomas Carpenter, owner of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Huckleberry Travel. "Most of our clients are vaccinated anyway, and they derived comfort from knowing that there wouldn't be unvaccinated people on the ship."
But, he added, "Now that we're farther along, I don't think anyone's thinking about it."
Tom Baker, president of CruiseCenter in Houston, said he hasn't lost any clients due to Covid policies, because most just want to travel. "Most clients are so confused, they just want to travel and will comply if it's necessary," he said.
But he still has clients who have gotten sick on cruises and said others have turned away from cruising completely since the pandemic.
"There are groups of clients who still believe ships are petri dishes of virus or disease," he said. "This fear factor keeps those with immune-suppressed issues or elderly from booking."