Inside the cruise industry’s aggressive pushback against the CDC

Cruise ship
(Credit: Getty Images)

Travel industry groups say communications with government medical experts have broken down amid the pandemic.

Have the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unfairly singled out the cruise industry with COVID-19 transmission warnings, despite lines putting a list of safety procedures in place since they resumed sailing less than a year ago?

According to some working on an industry advocacy campaign, the answer is yes, noting communications had previously broken down between the industry and the CDC, and that the cruise industry needed to respond aggressively to a recent advisory from the agency.  

To recap, cruises were arguably the hardest-hit segment of the travel and tourism sector at the start of the pandemic. The Diamond Princess, part of Princess Cruises, one of the brands owned by Carnival, had one of the first major outbreaks of COVID-19 outside of Wuhan, China, in February 2020. More than 700 people were infected, passengers were forced to quarantine in their cabins for weeks and seven people died. 

After the pandemic hit the U.S., cruise lines voluntarily docked their ships before the CDC issued a series of No Sail Orders, which ended after 15 months in June 2021.

The cruise industry’s other big players, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line, resumed sailings in U.S. waters this past summer, albeit at a reduced fleet capacity. In a campaign, Norwegian called it the “Great Cruise Comeback.”

New health and safety protocols on ships, including pre-board testing, fully vaccinated crews, vaccination requirements for guests, enhanced ventilation and mandates for mask wearing indoors and physical distancing, met and often exceeded the CDC’s Framework for Conditional Sailing Order, which was instituted after the No Sail Order. 

Yet Omicron had its own plans as companies tried to get back to normal. On December 30, 2021, the CDC slapped cruise ships with its highest travel advisory, Level 4, up from a Level 3. It cited “increases in cases onboard cruise ships since identification of the Omicron variant,” amid reports of ships being turned away from ports of call because of passenger or crew infections.

That put cruise ships on the same advisory level as countries like the U.K., France, Portugal and Canada, which are all seeing record daily case counts of COVID-19 because of the highly transmissible variant. The CDC also shared a statement with media that read it was “recommending people avoid cruise travel regardless of vaccination status.” 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) tweeted on the same day, “We should stop cruises and dock ships before they become sailing super spreaders.”

Arguing that cruise ships don’t belong at Level 4 and hoping to kill the Petri dish metaphor once and for all, the Cruise Lines International Association is leading coordinated communications on behalf of its member companies, including the big three cruise lines, to challenge the CDC.

The group is making clear that it disagrees with the government recommendation, saying cruise ships have “a highly controlled environment with science-backed measures” as well as testing and vaccination levels higher than other venues or modes of transportation. 

As it argues the cruise industry has been unfairly singled out, the CLIA has been sharing talking points with stakeholders on digital and social media channels and with the media. The statistics position a cruise ship as safer than, say, a visit to the local supermarket, in terms of getting infected. They include: 95% or more of cruise passengers are double-vaccinated versus 62% of the general population; the cruise industry administers nearly 10 million COVID tests per week, twenty-one times the rate of testing in the U.S.; and even with higher rates of testing, cruises have significantly lower rates of occurrence of COVID-19, 33% lower than onshore. 

The strategy to publicly question the advisory was aggressive, says Anne Madison, SVP of global strategic comms and marketing for the CLIA. It had worked with the government agency to bring ships back to U.S. waters, following a deterioration of comms between the industry and the agency in the early days of the pandemic.  

“A lot of people don’t realize the important relationship that has existed between the CDC and the industry, and it had been a productive relationship,” she says. “But what happened that was very much a surprise for us was that the comms within that relationship seemed to go silent at the start of the pandemic.”

She says it started when the CDC instituted the No Sail Order on March 14, 2020, a day after the “cruise industry voluntarily suspended operations for an indefinite amount of time. Then that overtook the news with the message that the CDC had shut down the industry when in fact the industry had voluntarily suspended itself.” 

A year later, CLIA launched a grassroots campaign called Ready, Set, Sail last March. It included advocacy toolkits, hosted stakeholder webinars and a diverse cadre of advocates to speak up on behalf of the industry. 

“Our obstacle is that the CDC would only engage minimally with the industry,” says Madison. “We recognized that CLIA, as the industry trade association, needed members of Congress to help carry the message to the CDC that the industry was ready and eager to engage in regular and productive dialogue to bring forth the responsible resumption of operations.”

She says the campaign in getting cruising restarted was “a tremendous success story, including within the CDC, which now continues to hold regular dialogue with industry.”  

Still, the CLIA has pushed back on the elevated travel advisory and has the support of tourism partners, including the American Society of Travel Advisors, which represents 17,000 travel professionals, many of whom make commissions on cruise bookings. 

Eben Peck, EVP of advocacy for the ASTA, says the industry had to get its side of the story out, particularly because the elevation of the CDC’s travel advisory level generates a lot of media coverage, without the reverse being true when a level is lowered.

“They will put cruises back to Level 3 at some point, but there will be no reporting about that whatsoever. The only media engagement you see with this is negative,” says Peck. “So we have been speaking out forcefully over and over again. I’ve lost track of the number of what I call shaking-our-fists-at-the-CDC statements.” 

Individually, the cruise lines are also sharing statements with the media, albeit less strongly worded onces than the CLIA or ASTA.

Norwegian, for instance, issued a statement last week that read: “As a result of our comprehensive health and safety protocols, we believe that vacationing onboard any one of our 28 cruise ships is safer, and guests are better protected from contacting COVID-19, than in any other general population setting,” 

The industry is also celebrating a victory in a recent decision from the CDC to allow the Framework for Conditional Sailing Order to expire on Saturday, owing to the lengths the cruise industry has gone to protect passengers. 

​Madison sees that as a vote of confidence from the CDC, and a sign that the CLIA’s recent campaign, and all the work it has done since Ready, Set, Sail, has made a positive impact. In a statement issued on Wednesday, the CLIA said the CDC’s decision “recognizes the cruise industry’s unwavering commitment to providing some of the highest levels of COVID-19 mitigation found in any industry.” 

Still, there is no question the omicron variant has slowed the cruise industry’s recovery. Royal Caribbean said in a quarterly update at the end of December that it had “a very strong Cyber weekend,” but saw a decline in bookings and uptick in cancellations for near-term booking, though to a lesser degree than caused by the Delta variant. 

Despite the short-term impact, industry communicators say cruising hasn’t suffered a reputational decline in recent years, likely due to safety measures implemented since last summer.

“We are not seeing any brand reputation declines,” said one cruise-line executive. “In fact, we are seeing reputation levels at the same or better than before the pandemic in early 2020.” 

During the pandemic, the CLIA also increased tracking of brand sentiment and reputation with the measurement tool Travelsat. 

“That has been very helpful to us to be able to track that because we’ve been able to see where net sentiment has gone for cruising overall not only globally, but in key cruise markets,” says Madison. “We started 2021 with the Travelsat net sentiment at 55, and last month it was in the 80s.”

This story first appeared on PRWeek US.

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