Sister brands American Queen Steamboat Co. and Victory Cruise Lines last week became the first cruise companies catering to North Americans to mandate that passengers have full Covid-19 vaccinations in order to sail, beginning July 1.
The move followed Saga Cruises, the U.K.-based line, which implemented the requirement for its sailings launching in May.
But as much as the news was headline-making, it does not indicate that this will be the norm for cruise lines going forward.
All three of these brands cater to passengers in age groups at the front of the vaccine lines, which impacted the decision making. Hornblower Group, parent company to American Queen and Victory, said the majority of its guests are in the 65-plus population that is "eligible now, or will be soon, to receive the vaccination."
American Queen and Victory don't depend on the family or multigenerational business that is so important to mass market and premium cruise lines; those lines may be less likely to implement vaccine mandates, knowing it could be a while before the average person under 50 has access to the shots. The vaccine is not approved for children under the age of 16.
What the decision does show is that Hornblower's lawyers concluded that it is legal to implement such a mandate.
"Our legal team has been working on this for quite some time as we were considering this," said John Waggoner, the CEO of both lines.
He said that the lines do not plan on allowing people to opt out, including members of his own family.
"We told the whole family, you have to get a vaccine before you come," he said, adding that if any passengers cannot get vaccinated before their sailing, "we'll refund your cruise or change it to a later date to [give you] additional time to get vaccinated. We're not making any exceptions."
That does not eliminate the potential for challenges to such rules. Sharona Hoffman, professor and co-director of Case Western Reserve University's Law-Medicine Center, said that cruise lines, airplanes and other travel providers are "all private entities and so they can make rules for use of their services, just as restaurants say 'no shirt, no shoes, no service.'"
However, people may look for exemptions.
"They'd probably have to accommodate disabilities," Hoffman said, people who "can't get the vaccines for medical reasons. Private entities generally have to accommodate those."
Anyone claiming a religious belief that conflicts with getting vaccines would have a tougher burden of proof.
"The medical exemption is easier because you just bring a doctor's note," she said. "There are questions about whether there are religions that really prohibit vaccines in a pandemic. You can't say, 'I'm a member of the abracadabra religion and therefore I'm not getting the vaccine.' It would have to be more than that."
Given the percentage of Americans who say that they will not get vaccinated, or at least not in the first year, American Queen and Victory may be eliminating a swath of the public who would consider their cruises. That might not be an issue for Hornblower, which only needs to fill seven ships between 200 and 400 passengers each, but it is another reason the mass market lines, which have thousands of berths, would hesitate.
Suzy Schreiner, owner of Azure Blue Vacations in Seattle, asked a group of her clients who have sailed small domestic lines and generally fit into their higher age demographics what they thought of the American Queen/Victory vaccine rules.
"Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the opinions really split down the middle, just like the U.S.," she said.
About half said it would make them more comfortable sailing with those brands and think it's the right thing to do to protect crew and other passengers. They also said it reduces the possibility of a trip interruption due to an outbreak, which happened several times over the last year.
The other 50%, she said, felt that vaccination should be a choice and that those wanting to be vaccinated should do so and those who don't "should be free to be at risk." That group, she said, did support the crew members being vaccinated.
"One person said she can't get the vaccination because of particular allergies and wondered if that means she can't travel," Schreiner said, while another worried that if they want to travel with younger people who can't get the vaccine, they'd have to put off their trip.
Waggoner is confident that most of his clients will feel better booking with the vaccine mandate in place and said many had already told him as much.
"We said, 'Would you feel more comfortable if everyone onboard had to have a vaccine,' and their response was, 'Yes, I'd feel much more comfortable if that was the case.'"
It is a decision travel providers around the world will have to make.
"It's a cost-benefit analysis," said Hoffman. "Maybe it decreases demand because you have so many people who don't want to get the vaccine. On the other hand, people like me aren't going to go on a cruise ship unless there is some kind of mandate like that. And all you need is one story about an outbreak. That could be catastrophic for the industry."
Both lines plan to begin sailing prior to the mandate: American Queen in March and Victory in May.