Can a gay cruise keep 5,500 people safe amid COVID?
By Ceylan Yeginsu
As the omicron variant of the coronavirus continues to surge onboard cruise ships, forcing several cruise lines to cancel and postpone voyages, Atlantis Events, a gay and lesbian tour operator, is preparing to launch one of its biggest events Sunday: a 5,500-person Caribbean cruise marking the company’s 30th anniversary.
Even as the pandemic is raging around the world and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a stark warning telling Americans to avoid travel on cruise ships, regardless of their vaccination status, Atlantis insists that its vaccination mandate, testing requirements and health protocols are enough to provide a safe environment for guests throughout the voyage. Many passengers are convinced.
“It’s time to start living our lives again and vaccines and tests allow us to do that. This isn’t COVID 2020,” said Andre Mayer, a graphic designer from Germany who paid more than $4,000 for the weeklong cruise on board Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas. “This is going to be the wildest party for our community in two years. I’m talking dirty dancing, sex, drugs, raves, orgies and sweet, sweet freedom.”
For the hundreds of cruise passengers who contracted the coronavirus on board other ships in recent weeks, many falling ill and spending days in quarantine, their experience couldn’t have been further from the carefree vacation that Mayer anticipates. After testing positive, many hoped to isolate in their airy rooms with balconies, but were transferred to basic quarantine facilities — some of them without windows — and served food that they described as cold and hideous.
For some booked on the Atlantis anniversary cruise, these reports and the omicron wave of the virus is causing them to reconsider their plans. But the company’s strict cancellation policy does not offer refunds for changes made within 60 days of departure, forcing guests to weigh health risks against losing thousands of dollars.
“The COVID reality changes so quickly that there needs to be more flexibility,” said Aiden Morgan, a 44-year-old dance teacher from Boston. Morgan sold his ticket on Facebook, but was only offered a $1,480 for his $3,800 ticket.
“I’m getting a lot of pressure from my friends to go and believe me, I really want to go and get it on, but it just seems crazy to me to risk getting sick and being trapped on a boat,” Morgan said. “Some nights I lose sleep and get the sweats just thinking about being in a cold room all alone with COVID.”
Rich Campbell, CEO of Atlantis Events, said that his events company was not able to offer the same flexibility as billion-dollar cruise lines, which have many fleets and sailings to transfer bookings, and the financial resources to offer refunds.
“In order to exist we take massive risks to operate these charters,” Campbell said. “We signed a contract with the cruise line that cannot be changed or canceled. If I told Royal Caribbean that I was canceling the cruise tomorrow, they would come back and say ‘great but you still owe us the money.’ ”
Out of the 2,700 rooms sold, Campbell said only 35 have been canceled since Jan. 1.
For guests who cannot travel because of government restrictions or lockdowns, Atlantis is showing more flexibility and issuing credits for future cruises, Campbell said. Because of the fast-changing circumstances of the pandemic, he said, the company is approaching cancellation requests on a case-by-case basis and trying to accommodate as many people as possible.
“We are here to take care of people and we are doing our best,” he said. “But if someone comes to us and just says they want their money back, because they don’t feel comfortable going on the cruise, then we recommend that they take out ‘cancel for any reason’ travel insurance.”
Since restarting operations in the United States in June, many cruise lines and tour operators have adopted flexible cancellation policies, offering credit or refunds to customers who want to make itinerary changes because of the coronavirus.
Before the pandemic, Atlantic Events hosted more than 25,000 guests each year, organizing specialty gay and lesbian events on cruise ships and resorts around the world. Last year it was forced to cancel or postpone several events, including its 30th anniversary cruise.
“We had almost two years with no income, and we are a tiny self-financed company. It was a huge challenge to survive,” Campbell said.
Ron Davis, a 50-year-old talent manager from Nashville, Tennessee, who will be embarking on his 26th Atlantis cruise Sunday, said the calls to cancel the cruise are overblown and exacerbated by the stigma against gay cruises that presumes they are all drug-fueled sex parties with no limits.
“The cruise is whatever you make of it and there is something for everyone,” Davis said. “I have never been part of an orgy, I have never done cocaine off a stair rail. Sure, if you want that you can find it, but it’s not all people having rampant sex out in the open.”
For Davis, the upcoming cruise does not feel any more dangerous than taking a flight, or going for happy hour at his local bar where customers are not tested beforehand.
“I don’t think I’m bulletproof, but I’m doubled vaxxed and boosted and I’m careful,” he said.