Cruise executives are hopeful that sailings from US ports could restart by mid-July
The odds are improving that at least a few big cruise ships could be sailing out of U.S. ports by mid-summer.
That was the word Thursday from the top executive of cruise giant Royal Caribbean Group, the parent company of Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises and Silversea.
In a conference call with Wall Street analysts, Royal Caribbean Group chairman and CEO Richard Fain suggested that a "significant improvement" in the dialogue between the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and cruise lines in recent days had increased the likelihood that at least some big cruise ships could resume operations in the U.S. as early as July.
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The CDC has been blocking cruise ships from sailing out of U.S. ports for more than a year in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Fain specifically cited a letter that Royal Caribbean Group and other cruise companies received late Wednesday from the CDC that announced a simplification of the process that cruise lines must follow to win approval to restart operations out of U.S. ports.
Among several major changes to the process, the letter said cruise lines would no longer have to operate "test cruises" with volunteers before resuming sailings out of U.S. ports, provided they restart voyages with at least 98% of crew and 95% of passengers fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
The CDC also said it promised to respond to cruise lines applying to restart sailings within five days. Its old guidelines mapped out a 60-day response time.
"They addressed many of the items that concerned us in the [original restart guidelines] in a manner that takes into account the recent advances in vaccines and medical science," Fain said. "We believe that this communication really helps us to see a clear and achievable pathway forward to ... safe and healthy cruising in the near future."
Still, Fain cautioned against being overly optimistic.
"An important caveat is that this is a very complex area, and we only received the letter last night. There are still a great many details ... to be resolved," he said. But, "we now have high hopes that if these details can be worked out quickly, it could be possible to restart cruising [out of U.S. ports] by mid-July."
Fain also noted, as he has in the past, that any cruising restart by Royal Caribbean Group lines in U.S. waters over the summer would start out slowly.
"The restart does not mean that we will immediately go into full operation," Fain said. "While we are hopeful about restarting [by mid-July], that restart will be gradual and deliberate."
Fain added that the company's ships typically book out long in advance, and "it takes some time for the machinery to get back into full swing."
Royal Caribbean Group brands already are in the process of restarting operations in a number of regions outside of the U.S., from Europe to Asia.
As Fain noted, the company's Royal Caribbean brand has been operating sailings out of Singapore for only local Singaporean residents since December. The Royal Caribbean brand also is about to start up sailings out of Israel for local Israeli residents and sailings out of Cyprus open to any travelers who can get there. The line also soon will begin Caribbean and Bahamas sailings out of the Bahamas and out of Bermuda.
Royal Caribbean Group's Celebrity Cruises brand also is in the midst of starting up sailings out of non-U.S. ports, as is its Silversea brand.
All three of the brands will have at least one ship sailing somewhere in the world by mid-June.
Royal Caribbean Group also owns a partial stake in German brands TUI Cruises and Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, both of which have restarted some sailings in Europe.
All of the vessels that have restarted operations have instituted new health protocols including testing requirements, mask mandates and social distancing regulations.
The data from such sailings clearly show that the protocols are working and that cruising with such protocols is safe, Fain suggested.
"We have successfully carried over 125,000 passengers with only 21 COVID-19 cases. That's a positivity rate of 0.01%," Fain said. "And, as we have emphasized, all of this has been experienced without having the availability of vaccines."
Royal Caribbean has announced a vaccine requirement for adult passengers on many -- but not all -- of the sailings it plans to start up in the coming months.
Fain added that the company's goal throughout the pandemic was to "make a cruise ship where we can control the environment [to be] safer than Main Street USA."
With the sailings to date, the company "already demonstrated our ability to do that, and we are now eager to resume life as so many other businesses are doing."
While most cruising in U.S. waters has been halted by the CDC since March 2020, a few lines that operate small vessels in U.S. waters have resumed sailings in recent weeks. The CDC ban on cruising in U.S. waters only applies to vessels that carry more than 250 passengers and crew.
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