Carnival points to boost after dropping test requirements

A surge in cruise bookings on the day after Carnival Cruise Line announced that it was relaxing its COVID testing requirements proves there’s a “pent-up demand” for cruising that has not yet been satisfied, the cruise line said Tuesday.

On Friday, Carnival announced it would no longer require vaccinated passengers to take a COVID test within three days of boarding cruises less than 16 days long, except on trips to Canada, Bermuda, Greece and Australia.

Unvaccinated passengers will no longer be required to submit to an “exemption request process” and will be allowed to board by simply presenting the results of a negative PCR or antigen test taken within three days of boarding, except on trips to Australia or trips 16 nights or longer. Children younger than 5 are exempt from all testing and vaccination requirements.

The new rules take effect on Sept. 6. On Monday, the first full business day after the announcement, bookings for Carnival cruises were twice as high as on the same date in 2019, the company said in a news release on Tuesday.

Aug. 15 fell on a Thursday in 2019, so the company compared two weekdays.

“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,” Carnival Cruise Line president Christine Duffy said in a statement.

Prior to the announcement, bookings through the end of 2022 “have also been very solid,” she said, adding, “With the further alignment of protocols to other vacation choices, our guests are booking the remaining 2022 inventory, and are getting a head start planning for 2023.”

Most other major cruise lines have announced similar moves since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped monitoring cruise ships for COVID cases last month.

Beginning Aug. 8, Royal Caribbean dropped its testing requirement for vaccinated passengers sailing less than six nights, but kept the requirement for unvaccinated passengers on all trips.

In an earnings report released on July 28, Royal Caribbean said that booking volumes in the second quarter for 2022 sailings were 30% higher than bookings during the comparable period in 2019.

In addition, “booking volumes for 2023 have shown consistent improvement week over week and have been accelerating over the last several weeks,” the report said.

Norwegian Cruise Lines is dropping all pre-cruise requirements for vaccinated passengers ages 12 and over beginning on Sept. 3. Unvaccinated passengers 12 and over will have to present a negative antigen or PCR test 72 hours prior to boarding. Children 11 and younger will not be subject to testing or vaccination requirements of any kind, the cruise line said.

On MSC Cruises, testing is no longer required for vaccinated passengers sailing less than six nights from U.S. ports. Unvaccinated passengers 2 years old and up must present proof of a negative result of a test taken within three days of boarding.

Stock prices of publicly traded cruise lines have been up sharply over the past five days, though they remain well below their 52-week highs.

Carnival closed at $11.19, up 13% over the past five days. Royal Caribbean was up 10.7% over the past five days and closed at $44.08 on Tuesday. Norwegian’s $14.56 close on Tuesday was 14.7% higher over the past five days. MSC is privately traded.

The website, which produces news about the industry as well as lets consumers book cruises from its site, recently surveyed 5,000 readers and found attitudes about post-COVID cruising equally split.

The 45% who said they are ready for pre-cruise tests to be over only slightly exceeded the 44% who said they aren’t ready because pre-cruises tests make them feel safer on board, respondents told Cruise Critic.

Aaron Saunders, Cruise Critic’s senior editor, said the site has heard from travelers on both sides of the issue.

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“While we’ve certainly heard from some travelers who aren’t yet ready for COVID-related policies to be relaxed, we also hear from a number who are ready to see changes made — specifically around testing requirements,” Saunders said in an email.

Jennifer Walker, owner of Jennifer Walker Travel Inc. in Washington, Illinois, said most clients she speaks to “still feel cruises aren’t a safe form of travel given the crowds onboard, and nothing seems to change their impression. They’re in a ‘wait-and-see’ position.”

However, Laurel Brunvoll, of My Unforgettable Trips in Gaithersburg, Maryland, said she has only seen a small increase in cruise bookings over the past several days but figures that’s because few people are aware of the change in protocol.

“The relaxation of testing and vaccine requirements helps streamline the entire planning process and relieves a lot of stress and uncertainty for all cruisers (regardless of their vaccination status) as they anticipate their vacation,” Brunvoll said by email.

But Hubert Harriman, of Boca Raton, a veteran of 140 cruises, said the industry can now expect the return of passengers who have avoided booking a cruise because they don’t want to bother doing it.

“We have taken five cruises since COVID and had to go through the hassle of pre-testing each time,” he said Tuesday. “I am sure that many people didn’t want to bother doing that so it should increase sales.”

Ron Hurtibise covers business and consumer issues for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He can be reached by phone at 954-356-4071, on Twitter @ronhurtibise or by email at [email protected]