There are two schools of thought about going on a cruise during the tail end of a pandemic. One: “Are you crazy? Of course I won’t lock myself in a floating indoor mall that shuttered due to deadly outbreaks.”
And two: “Are you crazy? Of course I’ll take an immersive, all-inclusive vacation that won’t require me to plan, prepare food, or clean anything, and will entertain my children with 25 waterslides and all-day ice cream buffets.”
Laura Notarnicola, a 27-year-old in Atlanta, is the second type of person. “I kind of teared up once I got on the ship,” she said of her first cruise since being vaccinated, a seven-day Royal Carribean trip through the Bahamas in June. “It sounds ridiculous, but it had been so long that it was kind of overwhelming.” The feeling of joy on the ship was palpable, she says. “I’ve never experienced anything like that—a whole community of people happy at the same time.”
The theater of the ocean has been dark for more than a year. Cruise ships, per the CDC, are “often settings for outbreaks of infectious diseases” under regular circumstances. And they became COVID whirlpools long before the term wave first started to be applied to the pandemic.
One Princess cruise ship that embarked on January 20, 2020, held 3,711 people and ultimately accounted for 712 infections and 14 deaths. Some people were confined to the ship for nearly a month beyond the length of the cruise. The New York Times christened the ship Floating Symbol of America’s Fear of Coronavirus.
Now travelers are lining the gangplanks once again: 141 cruise ships run by 50 different cruise providers will embark in July, according to Cruise Industry News. The Times reported that “hundreds of thousands of people” volunteered to be test subjects on the first cruise of more than 250 people authorized to disembark in U.S. waters.
In normal years, the global cruising industry brings in tens of billions of dollars. The Florida Ports Council claimed that in that state alone, the pandemic cost 169,000 jobs and nearly $23 billion. (It’s worth noting that many cruise lines register their ships outside the United States, which means they don’t pay U.S. taxes.) Cruising is a big, fat business. And one way or another, cruise companies are determined to get us back on board.
Disney announced the launch of the company’s fifth cruise ship, this time with a park attraction—a watery log-flume-type ride—onboard. Carnival Cruises launched a ship this June that is complete with a roller coaster. Norwegian Cruise Line gave away week-long cruises to 100 teachers. Gwyneth Paltrow has hinted that the Goop Cruise is a go.
Is collective memory short? Or have cruises literally cleaned up their act?
The CDC released a lengthy list of instructions that U.S.-based cruise lines need to follow to get the go-ahead from the federal agency to take on passengers. That list does not include requiring passengers to be vaccinated, but it does put unvaccinated passengers through a series of hoops including extra testing and paperwork. In Florida, where most major cruise lines in the U.S. are headquartered, the CDC is now locked in a legal battle over the regulations. Governor Ron DeSantis signed a law this month making it illegal for businesses, including cruise lines, to refuse service based on vaccine status.
Still, some cruise lines, such as Carnival and Norwegian, reportedly plan to require proof of vaccination. And Bloomberg reports that on cruise ships that permit unvaccinated travelers, they are treated, essentially, as second-class citizens—subject to extra fees and limitations on board. The CDC firmly recommends that unvaccinated people avoid cruise ships and rates the COVID risk level for unvaccinated travelers as “high.”
On Notarnicola’s cruise, passengers were only allowed onboard with a negative COVID test and were tested again on the second-to-last day. The cruise was at less than half capacity, and buffets were reduced and helmed by servers. Guests went mostly maskless, though every worker wore a mask. When people gathered in large groups, Notarnicola remembers, they were politely asked to disburse.
No one minded. “I did not see one upset person on the cruise the entire time,” she says with a laugh. “Everyone was just beyond excited to get back on the ship—we just wanted to be together and have fun.” Notarnicola is a millennial, and she runs a cruise-themed YouTube channel with her boyfriend. Her identity as a cruiser, says Susie Flores, a longtime travel advisor, isn’t far outside the norm. “There’s a stereotype: ‘It’s only for old people.’ You think of retired people playing shuffleboard and bingo,” she says. “But I think cruising has evolved. This aspect of it being formal—it is not.”
Flores, who is 44 and a devoted cruise-goer herself, works with plenty of multigenerational families, parents with kids, and retirees. But there’s been a shift. “Recently we’re seeing an increase in millennial travel,” she says. Norwegian and Royal Caribbean cruise lines have implemented studio-style cabins, a departure from many years of suites and staterooms meant for families and couples.
Part of the draw of cruises, and the shift in clientele, is that, while they are definitely a luxury, they’re also much more within reach than, say, flying to a tropical destination and camping out at a hotel for a week. “Cruises in general end up being so much more cost-efficient,” Notarnicola says, explaining how one upfront cost covers accommodation, travel to multiple destinations, activities, and three meals a day. “It’s just everything you need in one place—there’s nothing like it.” Flores agrees. “It is an appetizer sampler of a vacation.”
In this sense, cruise culture is a little bit like Disney culture, or Broadway culture, or certain popular luxury brands. For a long time they were mostly available to the ultrawealthy, which made them seem glamorous and refined. Now these things are within reach of middle-class people. Every person I spoke with who lives in the world of artisanal goods and upscale minimalism talked about going on a cruise in the COVID age as sloppy and stupid. But those same people plan to travel on planes, eat in restaurants, and take public transportation. To me it seems like a class issue—judging people who enjoy a popular activity as not only having poor taste, but also worse judgment.
Flores isn’t concerned about vacation snobbery. She loves cruise culture—the kind people, the ease of travel, the connections with workers from around the world. “There’s also something very therapeutic about being out on the open sea,” she says. “You leave your worries on land, and it’s just you and the ocean. You open up your balcony door, smell the salty sea air, and there’s just nothing but blue all around.”
Slowly, cruise ships are lowering their gangways. Restaurants are filling; summer camps are teeming with children. The country is “not out of the woods yet,” CDC director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., cautioned this week, pointing to a rise in infections and hospitalizations among unvaccinated people.
Some people will go on cruise ships; others will turn up their noses. But we are all, one way or another, out to sea.
Originally Appeared on Glamour