More cruise lines eye preboarding COVID tests for passengers

Aug 13, 2020

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Get ready to get tested for COVID-19 when you show up for a cruise.

A growing number of cruise lines including MSC Cruises and the many brands of the Royal Caribbean Group are talking about testing every passenger who arrives for a voyage during the check-in process when cruising resumes.

“It’s very likely that testing will occur”, one of the top executives at Royal Caribbean Group, Michael Bayley, said Monday during a conference call with Wall Street analysts.

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Bayley is the CEO of just one of the Royal Caribbean Group’s brands, Royal Caribbean. But he was speaking about health protocols in the works for all of the company’s brands including Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Azamara and Silversea.

It was the first time that an executive at Royal Caribbean Group had said the company was likely to require passengers to undergo COVID-19 tests before boarding ships.

Bayley’s comments came just a few days after MSC Cruises CEO Gianni Onorato said the line planned to perform a COVID-19 swab test on every passenger arriving for cruises out of Italian ports scheduled to begin on Sunday.

MSC Bellissima and MSC Grandiosa. (Photo courtesy of MSC Cruises)
MSC Magnifica, shown here with another MSC Cruises vessel, MSC Bellissima, is one of two MSC Cruises ships that will restart cruising in August. (Photo courtesy of MSC Cruises)

Speaking last week with The Points Guy and several other travel media outlets, Onorato said passengers would be given swab tests after arriving at their departure port as part of a preboarding medical screening. Passengers who test positive for COVID-19 or show symptoms of the illness will be denied boarding, Onorato said.

MSC Cruises is about to become one of the first major cruise lines in the world to resume sailings. The line plans to operate two vessels out of Italian ports that will sail to destinations in Italy and Greece. The trips only are open to Europeans.

Related: Italy to allow cruises to resume later this month 

The trips in Italy are resuming in the wake of a sharp drop in COVID cases in the country since March.

Bayley’s comments about COVID testing on Monday also raised the possibility that Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings is considering a similar requirement.

Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings have joined forces to develop new, COVID-related health protocols for cruise ships through a panel of outside health experts.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings is the parent company of Norwegian Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania Cruises.

Bayley suggested Royal Caribbean Group and the panel hadn’t yet made a final decision on a testing requirement.

“Certainly, testing seems to be very relevant, and discussions are underway”, he said during the conference call, which occurred in conjunction with the release of Royal Caribbean Group’s second-quarter earnings.

“We have a degree of confidence in the panel that we’ve formed, and all of our protocols are currently under review with the panel”, Bayley added. “So testing is part of the thinking. But we have not yet reached a point in our protocols where we’re ready to publish and release” a plan.

Bayley was answering a question from UBS analyst Robin Farley about whether COVID testing at boarding was a reasonable requirement for U.S. cruisers.

One other cruise company, start-up line Virgin Voyages, said in June that it was exploring the idea of requiring passengers to undergo COVID testing before boarding.

One issue with testing passengers at boarding is the impact it will have on the boarding process. Onorato said passengers arriving for the MSC Cruises trips in Italy would be swabbed at a medical station as soon as they arrived at the cruise terminal, before checking in. They then would proceed to a desk to be checked in while they await the test results.

Onorato said the company estimates that it will take 60 to 90 minutes for passengers to get their test results. Passengers will have to remain in the terminal until the results are back. If the results are negative, they then can proceed to board.

Cruise lines in recent years have been trying to speed up the boarding process, with some promising “curb-to-cabin” times under 15 minutes. The new boarding process described by Onorato suggests the boarding process in the era of COVID could be a more drawn-out affair.

Related: A growing number of cruise lines are cancelling sailings into 2021

While MSC Cruises will be the first cruise line to implement testing in the cruise terminal on the day of departure, one small U.S. cruise ship in recent weeks restarted operations with a requirement that all passengers get a COVID-19 before proceeding to the vessel.

UnCruise Adventures’ 60-passenger Wilderness Adventurer resumed sailings earlier this month in Alaska, where every visitor must test negative for COVID-19 a few days before arrival. Every passenger on the first sailing of the vessel tested negative before flying to Alaska. But a single passenger later tested positive after a second test in Alaska. As the passenger already had boarded the UnCruise Adventures vessel, the company was forced to cancel the trip, and all the passengers on the ship had to be quarantined in a hotel in Juneau, Alaska. UnCruise Adventures has subsequently cancelled all remaining 2020 sailings.

A similar situation played out on a Paul Gauguin Cruises ship sailing earlier this month in French Polynesia, where passengers must undergo COVID-19 tests after arriving. A passenger who boarded the ship’s first pandemic-era sailing with international passengers tested positive while on board the vessel. The ship had to return to its home port, passengers were isolated in their cabins while they underwent testing and the trip was cancelled.

Featured image courtesy of Royal Caribbean 

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