Things have been looking up for Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian as covid rules keep changing and unvaccinated passengers return.

No industry suffered as much during the pandemic as the cruise industry. Not only did covid (with a big assist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) shut down all sailings from the U.S. from March 2020 through July 2021, the industry’s return was a crawl, not a sprint.

Those first July 2021 cruises sailed with hundreds, not thousands of passengers, as the major cruise lines, Royal Caribbean International (RCL) – Get Royal Caribbean Group Report, Carnival Cruise Lines (CCL) – Get Carnival Corporation Report, and Norwegian Cruise Line (NCLH) – Get Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. Report labored under the CDC’s “conditional sail order (CSO).” The rules imposed by the CSO made operations challenging. The nature of covid meant that even ships sailing where all passengers 12-and-over had to be vaccinated and produce a negative test taken no more than two days before their sailing (which was all ships sailing from U.S. ports) still produced covid infections.

And while the vast majority of those infections did not lead to serious illness, the industry had both a government problem and a perception problem. It’s not that people did not catch covid on planes, at theme parks, at sporting events and concerts, or even at the grocery store, they did, but those places had plausible deniability.

You could test negative, catch covid buying a coffee at a packed shop at the airport, then present with symptoms somewhere in the middle of your cruise. The cruise did not give you covid, but the CDC counted that as a positive case onboard and used it to justify continued regulation while other industries dropped all covid-related rules.

In July, however, the CDC actually did what Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Norwegian had been asking for all along — it let the cruise lines operate like any other travel-related business in the U.S.

Image source: Carnival

Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Changed Their Covid Rules

Once the CDC stopped tracking covid on cruise ships, the three big cruise lines moved quickly to change their rules. All three had already made mask-wearing optional, but the industry’s big three then moved to drop/change testing requirements and loosen or even eliminate vaccine requirements. All three companies did things a little differently, so it’s important to understand the exact rules and remember that they’re ever-changing and could be different by your sailing.

Here’s where Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian stand now with the covid rules (and remember that the rules could be different based on ports and destinations):

Carnival (as of Sept. 6): Vaccinated guest must still show their vaccine card, but they no longer have to provide a negative pre-cruise test. Unvaccinated passengers no longer need to apply for an exemption but must “present the results of a negative PCR or antigen test taken within three days of embarkation.” Guests under the age of five years are exempt from vaccination and testing requirements.Royal Caribbean (as of Sept. 5): Royal Caribbean will drop its vaccination requirement but require testing in the same manner as Carnival for most U.S. sailings. Sailings leaving from Florida, however, still require passengers 12-and-over be vaccinated. The cruise line will also still require (for now) all passengers to provide a negative test taken within three days of their trip on sailings longer the five nights.Norwegian (as of Sept. 2)Unvaccinated guests will be allowed to sail but will have to provide a negative test taken within 72 hours of their sailing. Guests 11 and under will not need to be vaccinated or tested. Vaccinated passengers will not need to be tested.

Carnival Shares Good News (Probably) for Royal Caribbean, Norwegian

Dropping covid protocols allows more people to cruise. All three major cruise lines are trying to balance getting more people onboard with maintaining a safe environment given that nearly all of the people sailing since July 2021 were vaccinated and tested two days before boarding.

Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian don’t want to scare away customer still taking precautions against catching covid, so they’re trying to balance the needs of vaccinated and unvaccinated passengers. That seems to working spectacularly well.

“We have previously disclosed strong occupancy projections for the summer, and our bookings through the end of 2022 have also been very solid,” said Carnival President Christine Duffy, in a press release. “With the further alignment of protocols to other vacation choices, our guests are booking the remaining 2022 inventory and getting a head start planning for 2023. Mid-August is typically not a busy month for cruise bookings, but it’s clear that pent-up demand for Carnival has not been satisfied and guests are responding very favorably to our updated protocols.”

And while Royal Caribbean and Norwegian have different passenger profiles than Carnival, it’s likely that both cruise lines will see similar jumps in booking as there covid rules go away.