Big-ship cruising finally restarts this weekend in the Caribbean — here's what you need to know
Get ready for a celebration in the cruise world this weekend. The long-awaited comeback of big-ship cruising in North America is, finally, at hand.
One of the world's biggest cruise lines, Celebrity Cruises, on Saturday will kick off the first big-ship voyage in North America since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, breaking a 15-month spell without a single sailing in the hemisphere by a major cruise vessel.
The last cruise departures out of a North American port by a major cruise vessel took place in early March 2020.
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The Celebrity sailing will be a seven-night voyage out of Philipsburg, St. Maarten (the Dutch side of the island of St. Martin), that features calls at the islands of Barbados, Aruba and Curaçao.
The trip will take place on the line's 2,218-passenger Celebrity Millennium -- a ship that originally was scheduled to spend the summer in Alaska.
Celebrity Millennium will be just the first of several major cruise ships to restart operations in North America in the coming weeks. Royal Caribbean — the world’s largest cruise line — will launch its first North America sailings since the start of the pandemic on June 12, with sailings to the Bahamas and Mexico out of Nassau in the Bahamas. And Celebrity has another ship starting up Caribbean sailings out of Fort Lauderdale on June 26.
Luxury line Crystal Cruises will follow a week later with a startup of Bahamas sailings out of Nassau.
In addition, seven separate major cruise lines have announced plans to restart cruises to Alaska out of Seattle in July and August.
While many vacation spots on land in North America have reopened to tourists in recent months as COVID-19 cases have fallen, cruise lines have been delayed in restarting sailings in North America due to restrictions implemented by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Until recently, the CDC had blocked all but the smallest cruise ships from sailing in U.S. waters, which has effectively shut down big-ship cruising in North America. Most big cruise ships that sail in North America use U.S. ports as a base.
The CDC restrictions are behind Celebrity's decision to operate this weekend's sailing out the island of St. Martin and only include stops at non-U.S. ports. By originating the trip in a non-U.S. port and not including U.S. port stops, the line does not need the approval of the CDC to operate the voyage. Celebrity only requires the approval of officials in the destinations that Celebrity Millennium will visit, which the line now has.
While Celebrity Millennium is the first big cruise ship to restart operations in North America since the coronavirus pandemic began, it's not the first cruise ship of any size to restart -- or at least attempt to restart -- operations.
Celebrity's restart in the Caribbean comes seven months after small-ship specialist SeaDream Yacht Club attempted to resume voyages in the Caribbean with a small, yacht-like vessel called SeaDream 1. Alas, the sailing did not go particularly well. It ended with a COVID-19 outbreak and a quarantine for passengers. SeaDream subsequently canceled months-worth of sailings that it had planned for the winter and spring in North America.
There also have been several dozen cruises on small riverboats and other small vessels operated in the past two months on U.S. rivers and intracoastal waters. All of the trips have been on vessels that carry fewer than 250 passengers and crew, which are not subject to CDC regulation.
Still, the Celebrity Millennium sailing this weekend marks what many consider the true kickoff to a comeback of cruising in North America, and it is a major milestone for the comeback of cruising around the world. Big-ship sailings in North America -- particularly in the Bahamas and the Caribbean -- account for a significant percentage of all cruises taken worldwide.
Like all of the lines in the midst of restarting departures, Celebrity is implementing a long list of new health and safety measures designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on board Celebrity Millennium.
The new measures include a requirement that all passengers 16 years and older must be fully vaccinated for COVID-19, with final doses administered at least 14 days prior to sailing. Starting Aug. 1, all U.S. passengers age 12 and older must be fully vaccinated.
The line also is requiring that all passengers -- even vaccinated passengers -- be tested for COVID-19 before boarding Celebrity Millennium.
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