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How can cruising come back? Two of the world's biggest cruise companies join forces to figure it out

July 06, 2020
6 min read
Royal Caribbean ship
How can cruising come back? Two of the world's biggest cruise companies join forces to figure it out
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Two of the world's biggest cruise companies have joined forces to figure out how to make cruise ships safe enough for cruising to resume.

Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings on Monday announced they had jointly created a "Healthy Sail Panel" of nationally known health experts to develop new health and safety standards for ships in the new era of coronavirus.

The experts include former U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb and former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services secretary and Utah governor Mike Leavitt. The two will co-chair the panel.

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Other panelists include former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Julie Gerberding, former acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration Stephen Ostroff, and Cornell University School of Hotel Administration dean Kate Walsh.

"We sought out the best experts in the world, and we think we have that," Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings president and CEO Frank Del Rio told TPG on Monday. "We're looking forward to them going through the process."

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

Royal Caribbean Group chairman and CEO Richard Fain, who joined Del Rio on a Zoom call with TPG, said the panel would come up with recommendations for the cruise companies that could vary depending on different types of cruising, and the time and circumstances surrounding particular cruises.

"It's important to understand it's not one size fits all; it's not one time fits all," Fain said.

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Royal Caribbean Group is the parent company of Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Azamara and Silversea. It also is a part owner of German brand TUI Cruises through a joint venture.

Gottlieb and Leavitt joined the cruise executives on the call with TPG, too.

Gottlieb said the panel will be "looking expansively at all the components of potential risk (on a cruise ship) and how we can substantially improve the risk environment and make this a safer, healthier endeavor."

Gottlieb said the panel already had begun meeting and had split into four working groups. One is looking at potential health screening measures for cruisers. Another is focused on onboard environmental issues such as cleaning and disinfecting. A third group is examining healthcare on ships, including the treatment of sick passengers and a plan to get them to land.

Related: A cruise line in Europe just restarted trips -- with no port calls

The fourth working group is discussing related issues around the destinations that ships visit.

Gottlieb said the working groups are made up of subgroups of the bigger panel, and they would pull in more topic experts as needed. There are 11 panelists in all, including specialists in epidemiology, virology, microbiology, infectious diseases and biosecurity.

One of the panelists, Steven Hinrichs, developed a program for the rapid identification of biological agents of mass destruction. He's chair of the Department of Pathology and Microbiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, director of the Nebraska Public Health Laboratory, and director of the University of Nebraska Center for Biosecurity.

"If we need an expert in disinfectants or the use of UV light, we're going to find people with that discreet subject matter expertise to advise the expert panel," Gottlieb said. "We've already ... brought in an expert on the use of disinfectants in these kinds of environments."

Leavitt noted that neither the cruise lines nor the CDC has ever experienced a situation quite like this. It'll take a broad group of experts to figure it out, he suggested.

"The underlying question is what are the conditions under which a cruise line can operate safely," Leavitt said. "Who has the answer to that? Well, it's probably not any one person. It's a collective effort among different disciplines to answer that question."

The plan is for the panel to offer its initial recommendations by the end of August. The recommendations then will feed into plans the cruise companies and their subsidiary lines will submit to the CDC and other regulatory bodies in advance of restarting operations.

Related: How to book a cruise with points and miles

The CDC has issued a "no-sail order" for cruise ships operating in U.S. waters that is scheduled to expire on July 24 but could be extended. As part of the order, the agency is requiring cruise lines to submit plans for preventing and responding to coronavirus outbreaks on ships.

Leavitt said the panel already has reached out to the CDC, and the agency has "responded warmly" to the idea of its creation and its mission.

"We have pledged to them that we will operate transparently," he said.

The panelists said the findings of the panel will be "open source" in nature and could be freely adopted by any company or industry that would benefit from the group's scientific and medical insights.

The announcement of the panel comes as the cruise industry remains almost completely shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. All of the world's major cruise lines halted departures in mid-March, and many have canceled future sailings into September or October.

When asked if cruising could restart in a meaningful way before the arrival of a vaccine for COVID-19 or better treatments, Gottlieb said he thought it could.

"I don't think the governor and I would be endeavoring here if we didn't think it was possible to create a safer environment around cruising (such) that you can resume operations," he said. "But, look, it's going to depend on what the environment looks like (in the coming months). This isn't being done in a vacuum."

Gottlieb suggested a meaningful comeback of cruising would partly depend on the "prevalence of the infection" in the population in the months to come and where it was circulating.

Related: Is cruising done for 2021? This cruise line thinks so

"Part of what we're doing is coming up with a set of regulations, but we're going to have an overlay to this that's going to have some adjustment ... based on what the risk environment is. We don't really know what this is going to look like in the fall and winter, how prevalent the infection is going to be."

Additional resources for cruisers during the coronavirus outbreak:

Featured image by A Royal Caribbean ship at sea. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean).