Jeri Clausing
Jeri Clausing

When American Queen Steamboat Company announced the restart of cruises in the Pacific Northwest this week, it hailed the sailing as the first overnight river cruise in the U.S. to sail with all of its guests and crew fully vaccinated.

Turns out it probably wasn't the first; its competitor, American Cruise Lines, thinks it has already sailed several. But AQSC's emphasis on promoting what it believed to be true, and American Cruise Line's lack of interest in marking such a benchmark, underscored the ongoing politics of vaccine mandates and the great unknown about whether requiring travelers to be vaccinated is a plus, a minus -- or ultimately irrelevant.

While AQSC came out early in the game with a vaccine mandate to take effect in July, after all Americans would have a chance to get access to vaccines, American Cruise Lines has been clear from the outset that it won't make vaccines a requirement, although it strongly encourages passengers to be vaccinated.

But that doesn't mean American Cruise Lines hasn't required jabs in some cases. On its initial sailings in March, it quietly went against its policy and decided, out of what it called an abundance of caution, to require guests on some of its first sailings to be vaccinated.

And as sailings on its river and coastal cruise lines have ramped up, American Cruise Lines has amended its policy to note that depending on local restrictions, it may on some sailings require vaccines. That has been the case in the Pacific Northwest, where Washington state requires that 95% of river cruise passengers and crew be vaccinated. Likewise, AQSC had to change its policy and implement its vaccine requirement ahead of its July deadline for those sailings.

Watching the competitors' opposing public stances on vaccines has been an interesting study in public relations messaging, with AQSC repeatedly touting itself as the first U.S. river cruise line to mandate vaccines and American Cruise Lines and American Cruise Lines making its changes more quietly.

The differing stances from two companies that cater to the same demographic reflect the continued divide across the travel industry generally about the complex politics of vaccine mandates, including whether a mandate would attract or alienate customers.

The policies also underscore what has become clear as the European river season prepares to open: company protocols around Covid-19 can and likely will continue to change between the time a customer books and the sail date. And the driving factor will increasingly be driven by governments rather than individual companies.

The Globus family of brands, for instance, which operates Avalon Waterways, last week changed its policy to require all guests traveling internationally between July 15 and Oct. 31 to be vaccinated. Its previous policy that said nonvaccinated guests could travel if they could prove immunity or provide proof of a negative Covid test.

Globus CEO Scott Nisbet said the policy update follows new vaccine requirements by many countries. It also "provides our travelers the safest return to travel" while ensuring "more seamless movement between countries and within destinations," he said.

And as European countries reopen their borders with varying entry requirements, we can expect to see more changes in company policies to ensure their ships can return to the waterways.


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