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Where is it safe to take a cruise in 2021?

More than a year after the cruise lines came to a standstill due to Covid-19, there are clear signs that the cruise could make a comeback.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this month signaled that cruises can resume – with restrictions – until midsummer, which is welcomed by operators and cruise enthusiasts.

This follows months of increasing pressure from the industry to claim it has been treated unfairly due to coronavirus restrictions, leading Carnival to consider relocating ships and to sue Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

Because government regulations and vaccinations vary around the world, seafarers still have to navigate a lot. CNBC’s Global Traveler took a look at what to expect from cruises in 2021.

Which cruises are sailing and where?

Currently, US port departures remain a no-go according to CDC guidelines, although a restart is required by July 1st. These include major cruise excursions to Alaska, where Governor Mike Dunleavy is threatening legal action.

However, the Caribbean has full speed ahead – as long as passengers depart from the islands.

Starting in June, Royal Caribbean will offer a number of routes in the region starting in the Bahamas and Sint Maarten. Crystal Cruises will start from the Bahamas in June, while Norwegian will start departing from Jamaica and the Dominican Republic in August.

A cruise ship approaches the port in Ocho Rios, Jamaica.

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Europe is also moving on.

Greece is the destination of choice for many operators. Norwegian and luxury liners Celebrity Cruises, Seaborn and Ponant are planning all routes with port calls around the Greek islands this summer. MSC Cruises will also be operating a number of itineraries across Europe starting in May, with calls to locations in Italy, Malta, France, Spain, Greece, Croatia and Montenegro.

Venice is part of MSC Cruises’ routes, although embarkation from the city’s historic port will soon be a thing of the past as Italian officials have indicated that cruise ships will be diverted to the nearby industrial port due to a new environmental regime.

However, some operators, including MSC Cruises, only serve passengers who live in the European Union’s Schengen Zone. International visitors should be aware of any restrictions on staying and entering the country of embarkation prior to booking.

A cruise ship passes the historic canals of Venice.

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In the meantime, the so-called “cruises to nowhere” are in full swing. As round trips without ports of call and mandatory tests before departure, they are considered a low-risk option for vacationers who want an escape.

Singapore’s no-destination vacation has proven so popular that the city-state’s cruisers made up a third of the industry’s total travelers last month. The leading operators Royal Caribbean and Genting extended their season until October.

Companies in Great Britain also come up with the idea. Starting in June, P&O, Princess Cruises, Disney, MSC Cruises, Virgin Voyages and Royal Caribbean will circling the British Isles – many of them with domestic port calls.

Which cruise ships require vaccinations?

Most cruises are only offered to vaccinated people.

In January, the British operator Saga Cruises was dismayed when it became the first cruise line to introduce mandatory vaccination. But now companies are recognizing this as the norm, said Tom McAlpin, CEO and President of Virgin Voyages, Richard Branson’s adult-only cruise line.

Many companies in the cruise industry support the requirement that passengers be vaccinated before they travel.

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“We know this is the future,” said McAlpin. “As an adult-only cruise line, we can provide a tightly controlled and safe environment for everyone on board.”

Crystal Cruises, Norwegian, P&O, Viking and Celebrity Cruises have followed suit and introduced vaccine requirements for adult passengers. Royal Caribbean has made vaccines mandatory on some routes, including the Caribbean, while Carnival Cruises has yet to announce such measures.

What will the experience be like on board?

The focus on health and safety will also extend to the experience on board. Buffets are no longer offered and entertainment can be limited as cleanliness is paramount.

“While traditionally cleaning a ship would have been done in the background … the housekeeping theater will be of greater consumer interest and the hospitality brands will have their cleaning protocols front and center,” said Elle Kross, director of strategy at the Digital marketing company Movable Ink.

Vaccination requirements make family cruises difficult as children under the age of 16 are not yet eligible for vaccination.

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In the meantime, passengers can expect new technologies, from virtual queuing and contactless payments to thermal temperature checks and UV disinfection, to reduce in-person contact on board.

“The operators have done a lot of work … leveraging modern technology, implementing new processes, and training employees to work with new policies and guidelines,” said Vijay Achanti, principal of hospitality for North America at global consulting firm Capgemini.

Who is on a cruise vacation?

With new measures and the announcement of additional routes, vacationers seem to be gaining confidence. Bookings are closed in 2021, and Crystal Cruises posted the largest booking day in its 30-year history last month.

The route looks even clearer. According to Google data analyzed by the travel site Trips to Discover, US cruise ticket sales for 2022 are well above 2019 sales for the 2020 season as travelers plan new and rescheduled trips.

The bulk of those bookings continue to come from regular cruisers, said Kross of Movable Ink. Carnival reported last month that 55% of its bookings for 2021 so far have come from “brand loyalists”. But newcomers are also starting to see cruises as a piece of “normality before Covid,” she said.

Still, many do so with caution, said Jeanie Johnson of tour operator Jeanie’s Journey in Minnesota, who found that most vacationers opt for suites and balcony staterooms.

“Although these cruisers are fully vaccinated and ready to go, they are just a bit cautious,” she continued. “You want to be able to reach out … just in case.”

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