Cruise lines sailing in U.S waters can now decide if they want to follow COVID-19 guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has frustrated would-be passengers and ship companies in the face of soaring Omicron variant cases.
After the CDC’s framework for Conditional Sailing order (CSO) — in place for cruise companies since 2020 — expired last week, the health agency’s guidance for cruise ships have become voluntary for ships operating in foreign and U.S. waters.
Previously, the CDC issued a warning to avoid cruising despite vaccination status, after the Omicron wave led to over 90 ships sailing with passengers from the U.S. under CDC investigations because of COVID-19 cases. But the CSO officially ended on January 15, and transitioned into a voluntary framework.
Non-participating vessels that sail internationally and operate within US waters will be classified as ‘gray’ on the CDC’s cruise ships color status website — indicating that the agency has not reviewed the health and safety protocols of the operators. Meanwhile, cruise ships that opt out and exclusively sail in US waters will not be listed on the website.
While the CDC made it clear that the new program is voluntary, it recommended cruise lines to follow its COVID-19 mitigation guidelines.
“There's a level of frustration because I think messaging throughout this whole pandemic has just been so tough, whether it be at the local, county or state level versus federal level and the CDC,” Alex Sharpe, President and CEO of Signature Travel Network, told Yahoo Finance in a phone interview.
It's unclear how many cruise ship operators are expected to opt in to the discretionary program. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH) has pledged to continue applying the protocols on a voluntary basis, as part of a "commitment to health and safety," the company said in a statement.
Separately, Tom McAlpin, President and CEO of Virgin Voyages, told Good Morning America in a recent interview that "of course we're going to opt in" to the voluntary protocols, noting that the recommendations “are working.”
The CDC’s move was also hailed by Cruise Lines International Association, an industry group. It said the transition to a voluntary program "recognizes the cruise industry’s unwavering commitment to providing some of the highest levels of COVID-19 mitigation found in any industry,” the group wrote.
'Very busy booking'
To be sure, the pandemic is still creating industry headaches, causing some cruise ships to cancel trips mid-voyage in the wake of coronavirus diagnoses. Meanwhile, Omicron has increased the number of positive cases among full vaccinated crew members.
Recently, Norwegian Cruise Line's Gem ship was forced to cancel a 10-night trip to the Caribbean due to "COVID related circumstances." Nonetheless, industry experts say there's pent up demand from travelers.
“We're very busy booking. I would say the second half of ‘22 and into ‘23 and cruise lines have some ‘24 itineraries out already,” Sharpe said. Yet the current environment has forced travel agents to provide clarifications on the updated protocols for cruise ships.
“The whole thing kind of gets jammed up for this. And a lot of it is just clarify messaging,” Sharpe added. It's one reason why Wall Street remains bullish about how the industry's outlook as the CDC's order becomes voluntary.
“While we don’t think this changes anything about ship operations, we see it as a positive for sentiment on the cruise stocks,” Robin Farley, UBS analyst, wrote in a note to clients this month.
“The cruise lines have been already complying with CDC suggestions even in markets where they don’t have to, and we don’t expect that to change. We do think it will be a sentiment positive for the cruise stocks, further reducing the tail risk of any potential shutdown,” the firm added.
Dani Romero is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @daniromerotv