With booking cancellations rising amid the omicron surge, travel advisors called the CDC's recommendation that Americans not cruise, and the media's ensuing reaction to it, unfair and misguided.
The CDC on Dec. 30 recommended that people avoid cruising regardless of vaccination status. In raising its Covid-19 status for cruise ship travel to Level 4, it said that the virus "spreads easily between people in close quarters aboard ships."
CLIA hit back, calling the decision "perplexing" and pointing out that the cases identified on ships made up a "slim minority" of the onboard population and that cases so far were asymptomatic or mild, posing no burden on medical resources.
"The bite of the CDC warnings is that they become misguided and ill-informed headlines in the press, which promotes hysteria," said Alex Sharpe, CEO of Signature Travel Network, who was on the Celebrity Edge last week and bemoaned what he described as "knee-jerk, finger-pointing reactions."
"No doubt that omicron has certainly impacted travel, but from my vantage point onboard Celebrity Edge this past week with my family, cruising is not only pretty darn close to normal, it is remarkably safe," he said.
Sharpe said that Signature members had received a number of cancellations around the holidays and into the new year, for both land and cruise vacations.
"Folks don't seem to be scared of omicron, but rather the potential inconvenience should they test positive while on a cruise or in another country," he said. "Some are moving bookings, believing this variant will be short-lasting and things will iron out in 30 to 60 days, others are pushing off till Q3 of 2022."
The bite of the CDC warnings is that they become misguided and ill-informed headlines in the press, which promotes hysteria.
Michelle Fee, CEO of Cruise Planners, said she was "shocked and disappointed" about the CDC warning and said members were seeing a rise in cancellations mostly for close-in, first-quarter sailings.
"People read a statement from the CDC that says, 'do not cruise,' and a good portion of them tend to react to that," she said. "We've manned our agents with factual talking points to help them discuss the options for their clients.
"You don't want to put anyone in harm's way, but I keep saying, when you walk out your door and put yourself in any social setting, you are putting yourself in harm's way to catch the omicron. If you're going to take any type of trip any place, or go to a wedding or a family gathering or you traveled for Christmas, you've probably put yourself in a worse situation."
Fee said that the CDC had "yet again singled out the cruise industry" despite the thousands of canceled flights due to Covid-related staffing shortages.
"Still, I don't see any measures put in place prior to flying," she said. "Why is it that the cruise lines are the only businesses in the U.S. that have to be completely Covid-free? We know that no setting is immune to this virus.
"And the fact remains that less than 1% of all cruisers have contracted Covid. And the majority of the cases are asymptomatic or mild."
Sharpe said that while people may give less credence to CDC warnings than they did initially, "simply because of the contradictions and poor messaging that has occurred, there is no doubt that there is some direct impact and lots of indirect impact."
Both CEOs acknowledged that cruise ship infection rates are up but said that what gets lost in the warnings and subsequent reporting was that rates on ships are still lower than in most settings and among a population that is 100% tested and 95% vaccinated.
"I am hoping the millions who have safely sailed since the cruise restart will make sure we balance this misinformation and hold the CDC and the consumer press accountable for their misrepresentation of cruising," Sharpe said.
Vici Sheffield, a travel advisor and owner of Vici's Travel in Cocoa Beach, Fla., said cruise lines have some of the "highest sanitation standards of any travel industry," having learned from norovirus outbreaks years ago.
"The number of guests testing positive on the current cruises is not even reaching 1%. The cruise lines appear to be doing a great job of identifying and isolating those who are sick," she said. "What people have to remember is no one is testing before domestic flights or domestic travels. So you have more accurate information with the cruise lines because of the testing. Your local grocery store isn't catching those who may be asymptomatic, because testing isn't required."
After Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) canceled sailings because of omicron-induced crew issues -- adding the industry to the ranks of airlines, hotels, restaurants and other hospitality venues that have had to shut down or cut service due to the virus surge -- travel advisors hoped more cancellations would not follow.
Sheffield said that NCL "has taken a very conservative approach throughout the whole pandemic. This seems to be their business model." It is the only contemporary cruise line with a 100% vaccine mandate, extending even to those too young to qualify for vaccines.
"I am hopeful that the cruise lines won't voluntarily suspend their sailings again," she said. "The cruise lines have the best protocols in this industry, and they know what they're doing."