Cruise passengers return to Caribbean as locals still wait to be vaccinated

The cruise ship Celebrity Millennium, pictured here in San Diego Bay, is scheduled to depart from the Dutch territory St. Maarten June 5 for a seven-night cruise that will take U.S. passengers to three other islands in the eastern Caribbean. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)
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Jacqueline Charles and Taylor Dolven Miami Herald (TNS)

All eyes will be on the Caribbean this weekend as passengers board a cruise ship in the region for the first time in seven months.

However, the highly anticipated return of cruising in a region hard-hit by the coronavirus and now seeing a surge in cases amid low vaccination rates and the reopening of tourism-dependent economies, is worrying, say some industry watchers and public health experts, who fear that cruises in the middle of the ongoing global pandemic may do more harm than good.

“It is imperative to act with utmost caution,” said Dr. Sylvain Aldighieri, incident manager for the World Health Organization’s Americas arm, the Pan American Health Organization.


Cruise companies have put new protocols in place to better protect passengers and crew. Still, Aldighieri and his colleagues at PAHO say there are no guarantees that ships, which spread COVID-19 around the region last year, won’t see a repeat of the outbreaks that forced Caribbean nations to shut their ports in March 2020 for fear sick passengers would overwhelm their finite health resources.

“At present, with the evolution of the spread of the virus across the Americas and Europe, the unknowns related to the impact of COVID-19 vaccines on the transmission of the virus, and the challenges related to accessing the vaccine and rollout of the vaccine in most of the countries of the region, we need to act with caution,” he said.

Unlike the U.S., which has largely reopened its economy amid rising vaccination rates and declining infection rates, Caribbean nations are weighing the economic benefits of welcoming cruise passengers with the potential public health calamity an outbreak could bring. Many Caribbean islands, including St. Maarten, where this weekend’s cruise will depart from, are still reporting a surge in infections.

At least five cruise ships to depart from the Caribbean

On June 5, Celebrity Millennium, which is part of the Royal Caribbean Group’s Celebrity Cruises fleet, is scheduled to depart from the Dutch territory for a seven-night cruise that will take U.S. passengers to three other islands in the eastern Caribbean: Aruba, Curacao and Barbados. The cruise line will offer other itineraries that include stops in St. Lucia and Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.

Ludmila de Weever, St. Maarten’s tourism minister, recently told journalists that having the ship home port out of the Dutch territory “is a significant economic milestone for St. Maarten and another step on our path to economic recovery.”

“Celebrity Cruises home porting here will help drive our economy and rejuvenate opportunities for our people,” she said. “The opportunities are endless. It is hotel nights, it is transportation, whether big tour companies or taxi drivers, bus drivers, restaurants.”

Over a 14-week period, the cruise company is expected to garner the country as much as $52 million, the ministry said.

At least four other cruise ships have plans to start cruises from the Caribbean this summer: Royal Caribbean Group’s Adventure of the Seas, Carnival Corporation’s Seabourn Odyssey, Windstar’s Star Breeze and Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Serenity.

Three other ships — Royal Caribbean Group’s Vision of the Seas and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings’ Norwegian Gem and Norwegian Joy — recently canceled plans for cruises home ported in the Caribbean after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signaled it would soon allow for revenue cruises to begin out of U.S. ports.

So far the CDC has given the green light to two cruise ships to restart revenue cruises out of the U.S.: Celebrity Edge will depart Port Everglades on June 26 and Celebrity Equinox will depart July 4 for a seven-night cruise visiting Cozumel and Costa Maya, Mexico, and Nassau, The Bahamas. Several other ships are pending similar approvals for Caribbean cruises.

Travel protocols, vaccinations cards

Caribbean countries, some still struggling with testing capacity and vaccine hesitancy, are taking different approaches to vaccine requirements. The CDC recommends that all cruise ship passengers, crew and port workers be vaccinated, but will not require it. Meanwhile, PAHO and the WHO say they do not support requirements asking travelers to show proof of vaccination to travel. Still in recent weeks, a number of Caribbean countries have changed their protocols to do just that.

St. Kitts and Nevis will require all crew and all passengers over the age of 18 on ships that visit its shores to be vaccinated. Anyone under the age of 18 must present a negative RT-PCR test within 72 hours of embarkation. All personnel interacting with cruise vessel operations including ship agents, port staff, taxi and tour operators must be vaccinated.

The Bahamas has also announced changes to its testing requirement for vaccinated travelers. Those who are fully vaccinated will be required to upload proof of vaccination in lieu of an RT-PCT test requirement, and have proof they have passed the two-week immunity period.

St. Lucia recently announced an easing of its on-island protocols for fully COVID-19 vaccinated travelers who present a vaccine card showing they are two weeks passed their dosage requirement. They will now be allowed to book rental cars, dine at more local restaurants and visit tourism spots like Castries, Rodney Bay and Soufrière like a local. All travelers 5 years and older into St. Lucia still must have a negative RT-PCR COVID-19 test taken no more than five days before arrival.

St. Lucia’s Prime Minister Allen Chastanet, who has been leading discussions on the return of cruising to the Caribbean, specifically the eastern Caribbean, said ideally all passengers and crews would be vaccinated. Absent that, he said, they have taken steps to safely welcome the return of cruising tourists.

Chastanet said the itinerary through the eastern Caribbean is being treated as one stop with one chief medical officer in charge in case of a public health emergency. He and his counterparts in other Caribbean countries, he said, have “encouraged” cruise lines to have everyone vaccinated.

Dr. Michael Callahan, director of the Clinical Translation, Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, who helped treat and evacuate sick passengers and crew on the Diamond Princess and Grand Princess cruise ships last year, said companies operating cruises in the Caribbean should require everyone on board who are 12 years old and older to be vaccinated.

“The pandemic is not over until its also over for Caribbean nations that provide cruise ships with a port of call,” Callahan said via email. “Until then, the Industry should only visit ports in countries with strong vaccine programs and public health. To do otherwise poses a risk of spreading more variants, which will increase the risk for everyone. Nobody who understands the pandemic thinks it’s a good idea for cruise ships to go back to sea this summer with unvaccinated passengers and crew. The industry poses a unique risk to global health by providing a safe haven for COVID among unvaccinated passengers, and transporting these more dangerous viruses from country to county.”

The region has long pushed to have summer cruises through its crystal blue waters. Still, some are accusing regional leaders of prioritizing tourism over public health.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to minimize the level of risk,” Chastanet said. “There’s risk in everything that you’re going to do. I think our solution is a very good example that we’ve taken that risk head on and not allowed COVID to define us.”

COVID-19 ‘dried up’ Caribbean tourism receipts

In a paper published in July 2020, the Inter-American Development Bank said that Latin America and the Caribbean will suffer an unprecedented economic shock from the sharp downturn in tourism. The Americas region is home to the world’s most tourism-dependent economies, with Aruba, where one in three jobs is linked to tourism, topping the chart, followed by Antigua and Barbuda, and The Bahamas. In fact, 14 of the 15 most tourism-dependent nations in the region are located in the Caribbean, the IDB said.

Tourism receipts in the eastern Caribbean, which account for 40 percent of Gross Domestic Product, have “dried up,” the International Monetary Fund has said. The cruising bans and drop in air travel caused tourism-dependent countries to contract by 9.8 percent in 2020. Though countries like St. Lucia and others in the eastern Caribbean initially managed to contain the virus, the reopening to international travelers has brought new waves of infections, forcing lockdowns and curfews.

Barbados Tourism Minister Lisa Cummins, speaking at a recent Martinique tourism conference about the future of cruise tourism in the region said, while regional authorities and public health officials continue to have “serious conversations” around harmonizing protocols for the resumption of cruise tourism, she is “concerned” that discussions about COVID, protocols and vaccines, will only take officials to the point where they have successfully navigated the resumption but not the future of the cruise industry in the Caribbean.

“What does a new model look like?” Cummins said. “As we develop new protocols, we have to talk about vaccine equity, the challenges that are being faced by many of our economies in accessing vaccines so that we can restart the travel industry; so that we can restart the cruise industry.”

The industry, she said, brings close to 3.9 million passengers through the Caribbean region.

The Caribbean’s COVID-19 vaccine inequity

Vaccination efforts in the Caribbean region continue to be hampered by vaccine hesitancy and low access to doses, with many countries relying on the U.N.-backed COVAX Facility to get doses that are in short supply.

While the U.S. has a vaccination rate of 51 percent, an analysis of figures for COVID cases, deaths and vaccinations by the Miami Herald, el Nuevo Herald and McClatchy’s Washington Bureau found that many Caribbean countries continue to lag behind. The two island nations, Barbados and the Bahamas, and one territory, St. Maarten, where ships will be home ported, all have less than 50% of their population vaccinated. The island-nation with the highest vaccination rate, according to the analysis, is the Cayman Islands at 65.5%. Despite that, it has chosen to keep a cruise ban in place for the time being.

The lack of a consistent vaccination requirement for cruise lines, and the lack of clarity on how an outbreak may be dealt with, creates unease for some.

“The question is going to become for those Caribbean communities, what reopening plans do they have in place?” said André Wright, executive vice president of Standard International Group, which follows the cruise industry and advises port authorities. “Will they just accept those passages that are vaccinated and then how is that all going to be enforced once they’re on the ground? These are questions that I am not hearing all of the answers from each and every Island.”

Cruise companies have different vaccination requirements. Windstar and Crystal Cruises will require only passengers to be vaccinated, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises will require all crew and passengers over the age of 16 be vaccinated and Seabourn will require all on board to have had the shot.

Testing requirements vary as well, with some companies requiring negative antigen tests at the pier and others negative PCR tests within a certain time frame prior to boarding.

Tests alone were not enough to stop a ship-board COVID-19 outbreak during the last cruise in the Caribbean. Seven passengers and two crew members tested positive for COVID-10 aboard the SeaDream 1 cruise ship in November. What was supposed to be a seven-day voyage launching cruising’s comeback in the region was cut short after passengers began to test positive for COVID-19 midway through the cruise. The ship promptly returned to Barbados, where patients were sent to local hospitals.

With at least seven ships planning cruises in the region at the same time this summer, Wright worries about the well-being of locals who have not yet been vaccinated.

“The health and safety protocol has to be sounded out, it has to make sense for not only the protection of the cruise passengers, and the money that they’re going to spend on the islands, but also for the communities themselves,” he said. “And I don’t think much attention has been put to that.”

(McClatchy Investigations/Data Reporter Shirsho Dasgupta contributed to this report.)

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