Forget the tequila shots, straw markets and jewellery stores.
If cruise lines are allowed to resume operations anytime soon, passengers won't be permitted to roam freely around port cities.
Proposals to limit the spread of COVID-19 call for allowing passengers to disembark only if they are signed up for an excursion sponsored by the cruise line, one of a series of health protocols developed by an industry eager to resume operations after a six-month COVID-19 shutdown.
Will passengers be eager to board ships that they won't be allowed to leave unless they pay for an excursion?
"I wouldn't like that at all. That would stop me from cruising," said Scott Braun, a Miami resident and avid cruiser. He and his wife, Judith, say they've been on more than 30 cruises all over the world and find that roaming cities and meeting locals are the best parts of their trips. "We don't go on excursions," he added. "We either roam freely or arrange private tours."
Two similar sets of protocols were submitted to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on September 21 in hopes they will persuade the CDC not to extend its No Sail Order past the planned September 30 expiration. Cruise lines voluntarily cancelled trips through October 31, but many would like to resume sailings in the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean before the end of the year.
The proposals, which cruise lines would implement voluntarily, include requiring all passengers and crew members to take COVID-19 tests before being allowed to board. Fewer passengers will be allowed on ships. Temperatures will be checked frequently. Face masks will be required at terminals and on board ships whenever social distancing is not possible.
Cabins will be allocated for isolating patients who get sick. And cruise lines will develop ways to improve flow of fresh air through interior portions of their ships.
The recommendation to prohibit passengers from freely roaming away from cruise lines' watchful eyes in port cities would be enforced "until further notice," according to protocols developed by a panel of experts, called the Healthy Sails Panel, convened by Royal Caribbean and Norwegian.
The ban is intended to reduce the risk of exposure to ship passengers, crew members and local populations in port cities, the panel's document states.
"Prior to COVID-19, cruise operators allowed for both fully curated excursions and self-guided excursions and independent exploration at destinations of interest," it says. "However, the risk of exposure for the people in communities that are visited, and for cruise ship guests and crew, increase as more mixing between these groups occurs. Therefore, the Panel recommends that cruise operators initially prohibit self-guided tours and independent exploration and only allow certain curated indoor activities until further notice."
A set of protocols submitted by the Cruise Lines International Association, a trade group representing 95 per cent of the cruise industry, includes permitting shore excursions "according to the cruise operators' prescribed protocols, with strict adherence required of all passengers and denial of re-boarding for any passengers that do not comply."
CLIA spokeswoman Laziza Lambert said that means passengers won't be allowed to venture off on their own. "Guests and crew would only be allowed to partake in preplanned excursions within well-defined boundaries," she said in an email.
In recent weeks, some cruise lines have been allowed to resume operations in Europe and Asia under protocols similar to those proposed to the CDC. But on the first voyage of the MSC Grandiosa in mid-August, a family was denied re-embarkation after breaking away from the "social bubble" set up by MSC Cruises in Naples, Italy, according to a report in USA Today.
The Healthy Sails Panel recommendations say a ban on self-guided excursions should be implemented "in the startup phase" of a resumption. Meanwhile, the panel suggests, cruise lines should consider ways to make sponsored excursions more appealing, such as "reconsidering" their cost and offering a wider variety of trips to private beach locations.
Roger Frizzell, spokesman for Carnival, said the protocols aren't intended to be permanent. "Over time, in coordination with health and regulatory authorities, as well as our expert advisers, these policies are expected to be updated and adjusted as there are improvements in the general health outlook of the population, as well as additional advancements and enhancements in science and medicine," Frizzell said by email.
Travel agents said the ban on self-guided excursions will disappoint some travellers but won't keep most diehard cruisers off of the gangplank.
"Although roaming the port cities are one of the main draws of cruising, travellers who can't wait to get on board a cruise ship will be willing to make some sacrifices and work within the guidelines of taking the cruise line's excursions when visiting ports," Chris Caulfield, owner of CruiseOne in Croton on Hudson, New York, said by email. "There may be a few that will wait for that restriction to be lifted, but the majority of people are missing their cruise vacations and cannot wait to be on board in whatever form that takes."
Monica Iannacone, CEO and founder of Weekend Navigators in Tampa, said passengers can expect to spend more money if they want to get off the ship. "If travellers are no longer able to roam around the city while in port during their cruise, the cruise experience will be much different than it was before," she said by email. "Travellers will need to plan ahead to book authorised shore excursions and plan to spend extra money for these excursions."
Laurel S. Brunvoll, owner and president of Unforgettable Trips in Gaithersburg, Maryland, says the ban might deter some of her clients from taking a cruise. Plus, the ban won't be fair to smaller excursion operators in port cities that don't sell through the cruise lines, she said.
"It is also not fair to make cruise passengers pay for excursions in every single port stop when maybe all they want to do is stroll around and enjoy a cup of coffee or relax on a beach," she said by email.
For avid cruisers Scott and Judith Braun in Miami, cruising won't be worthwhile without the ability to go wherever their interests lead them. On European cruises, they like to "hop on and off buses" and map out locations in large port cities they'll want to further explore in future trips by air.
"We actually spend more money in port cities than we do on the ships," Scott Braun said.
Judith said the couple enjoys venturing out to local bars, chatting with restaurant servers, and maybe downing a tequila drink or two. "We have fun with the local residents," she said. "That's why we travel."