We might be just weeks away from a restart to North American cruising

Oct 6, 2020

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Are we just weeks away from a restart of cruising in North America?

The leaders of the world’s biggest cruise companies were optimistic about the possibility on Tuesday during the keynote opening session of Seatrade Cruise Virtual, an online version of the cruise industry’s annual meetup.

“My confidence level, or my optimism level, is very high,” Royal Caribbean Group chairman and CEO Richard Fain said when asked about the probability that cruising from the U.S. would resume by the end of the year.

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Carnival Corporation president and CEO Arnold Donald said his optimism level that cruising out of U.S. ports would resume by year’s end was at a “4.5 or 4.9” on a 5-point scale.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings president and CEO Frank Del Rio also was relatively upbeat about the possibility, though he was a tad less definitive.

“It’s coming soon,” Del Rio said of a North American restart. He suggested a timeline that might see cruising at his brands resume in late December or early January.

“Whether it’s (on) Dec. 22 or Jan. 3, I think we’re in the ballpark.”

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Norwegian Cruise Line's 3,998-passenger Norwegian Encore. (Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line)
Norwegian Cruise Line has canceled departures through the end of October. (Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line)

All of the executives noted the progress the industry had made in recent months developing new health and safety procedures to keep COVID-19 off ships when cruising resumes. The procedures include mandatory COVID tests for all passengers and crew, limitations on touring in ports and social distancing requirements on vessels.

Many of the procedures already have been implemented on a handful of cruise ships that have resumed sailings in Europe, and so far they have worked well.

“I think we have put together … a set of procedures that really puts us in a position to say, ‘yes, we can now come to the point where we can provide a healthy cruise,” Fain said. “We’re going to do it slowly; we’re going to start with test cruises, and then a few shorter cruises, and gradually build up as we build up our experience. (But) I do think that is going to start this year.”

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Royal Caribbean Group is the parent company of Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Azamara and Silversea. Carnival Corporation is the parent company of Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Holland America, Seabourn and five overseas brands.

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

The executives noted that a few hurdles remain to restarting cruising in North America before year’s end, the biggest of which is convincing the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to lift its “no-sail” order for cruise ships in U.S. waters.

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The order currently is scheduled to expire on Oct. 30 but could be extended.

Even if the CDC doesn’t extend the order into November or December, getting ships back into operation isn’t a rapid process, Del Rio said.

“People have to understand that it takes time to stand up a ship, especially ships that have been now laid up for six-plus months,” Del Rio said. “It is not turning on a light switch.”

Del Rio noted that before Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings can restart sailings, it will have to repatriate crew to its ships and also make a number of onboard changes to comply with COVID-related health and safety policies that the industry is implementing.

“We believe that it will take at least 60 days to stand up a vessel,” he said, suggesting that was the reason the company on Monday canceled all of its November sailings.

“If you just count (the days) with your fingers … it’s literally impossible for us to operate in the month of November. Perhaps others can or will, but we’re looking at post-November as a potential start date if everything else comes along.”

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Royal Caribbean, Carnival and several other major brands still have sailings on their schedules for November. Carnival in recent days canceled most of its departures through early January but kept November and December sailings on its schedule out of two Florida ports: PortMiami and Port Canaveral.

The executives noted they wouldn’t start back up until they believe they can do so safely.

“We’re eager to get back into work,” Fain said. “But we’re not going to do it until we’re all confident that it is safe and healthy.”

Fain suggested that the resumption of some cruising in Europe in recent months had given his company increased confidence that they can restart cruising safely in North America.

“The sailings in Europe, which have been so successful, also serve as a test for us,” he said. “We can see what’s happened, (and) we can see what’s working.”

Fain said the company’s objective since it started planning for a cruising comeback was to “do this in a way that makes being on a ship as safe or safer than being in your home town.”

To do that, he noted, cruise lines plan to do some extraordinary things, he said. He specifically called out the plan to have all passengers tested for COVID-19 before boarding.

“No other travel industry (segment) does it,” he said. “Not airlines. Nothing. I don’t know of any other industry in the world that does 100% testing.”

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Featured image courtesy of Royal Caribbean

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