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The 1 number that will tell us when cruising will resume, according to a top cruise executive

Feb. 27, 2021
6 min read
Norwegian Encore
The 1 number that will tell us when cruising will resume, according to a top cruise executive
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When will cruising resume in earnest in North America and elsewhere around the world?

The answer is relatively simple, one of the cruise industry's top executives suggested on Thursday: When case counts of COVID-19 come down to manageable levels.

"I think the prevalence of the disease in our own country and around the world will be the greatest indicator of when we can resume cruising," Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings president and CEO Frank Del Rio told Wall Street analysts during a conference call to discuss quarterly earnings.

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All but the smallest cruise lines can't resume departures out of U.S. ports until they get approval from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The health agency ordered a halt to cruising out of U.S. ports when the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic in March 2020. Cruise lines also face a roadblock to a return to cruising in the form of the many coronavirus-related travel restrictions that destinations around the world have imposed.

But the resolution of both of those hurdles is ultimately dependent on a drop in the prevalence of the disease in society, Del Rio suggested.

In short, if cruisers want one indicator to watch for a sense of when cruising will resume, it is the case count numbers that are posted every day.

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Norwegian Cruise Line operates 17 vessels around the world. (Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line)

Noting that the numbers have been on the decline in recent weeks, Del Rio on Thursday sounded upbeat about the prospects for a resumption of cruising in North America in the not too distant future -- perhaps as early as the summer.

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"We believe based on all the experts that we talked to ... that we’re going to see a continuation of the significant drop in cases as we enter spring (and) summer, as we continue to vaccinate over 1.5 million Americans a day, as more people get infected and recover," Del Rio said. "So all those things point into a direction where the prevalence (of COVID-19) should drop considerably, giving us a better opportunity to restart operations."

New cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. peaked in early January around 300,000 a day and have been dropping sharply ever since. About 78,000 new cases were recorded on Friday.

Still, while far lower than in January, the current pace of new cases remains above where it was during the first peak of COVID-19 cases last summer -- a period during which the CDC did not allow cruising out of U.S. ports. The recent decline in case counts also appears to have flattened out in recent days.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings operates three brands, Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises -- none of which have operated a single departure since March 2020.

Del Rio noted that as recently as a few months ago, the company was gearing up for a restart of cruising in the first quarter of this year. It had begun calling back crew to ships and preparing them for a relaunch.

Related: The ultimate guide to Norwegian Cruise Line

But then cases spiked into the last two months of last year, and the company had to reverse course. Crew that had been called back were sent home. Ships were put back into long-term layup.

"It proved to be more difficult than we first expected (to restart operations). We ... were in the middle of a spike in the number of cases," Del Rio said. "And so it became obvious to us that the initial expectation that maybe the industry could begin to cruise in the first quarter, which is heavily focused on Caribbean theater of operations, was not going to take place."

With case counts dropping, Del Rio and other cruise executives now are looking to the CDC to give them a green light to at least start the process toward a return to operations.

In a "framework for conditional sailing" order released in October, the CDC set out a roadmap to a resumption of operations that included test cruises that would have to take place before cruises with paying passengers restart. But the CDC has yet to issue guidelines or approval for operating such test cruises, which means they are on hold for now.

Related: A list of cancellations at every major cruise line

After the test cruises take place, the CDC roadmap calls for an additional 60-day process where lines would apply for approval to restart sailings.

Still, Del Rio suggested that 60-day process wasn't set in stone.

"The conversations we’ve been having with (the CDC), it’s not a hard 60 days," he said. "I think it could be less. But how much less? I don’t know. We’ve not received that kind of specificity on these guidelines."

That said, Del Rio estimated that from the moment the CDC gives Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings a green light on beginning the test cruise process, it could be around 90 days until the company has its first vessel back in operation.

This is the reason the line has been canceling sailings about three months out on a rolling basis, he suggested.

"I think for planning purposes, we’d like to give ourselves that 90-day window more or less," Del Rio said. "And so we’ve (currently) canceled cruises through the end of May. So if you count with your fingers, we're basically (at) March 1, so (we've canceled) all of March, all of April, all of May."

Del Rio suggested the company was waiting to cancel further departures until it was sure they can't operate. In the other words, the company still is holding out at least a sliver of hope that a handful of ships could restart operations in June.

"We keep bookings ... available as long as we believe there is a chance that we can operate," he said. "We’re always hopeful that the public health situation improves, and that we can restart as soon as we possibly can."

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Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.