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Royal Caribbean CEO on a return to cruising: 'We feel as if we're close'

Sept. 21, 2020
6 min read
Independence of the Seas
Royal Caribbean CEO on a return to cruising: 'We feel as if we're close'
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Could cruising in North America be on the cusp of a comeback?

In an exclusive interview with The Points Guy on Monday, the head of the world's biggest cruise line was optimistic about the possibility, though he cautioned that nothing was for certain.

"We feel as if we're close," Royal Caribbean president and CEO Michael Bayley said during a one-on-one call to discuss the company's restart plans. But he added a big caveat, which is that the line had "very little visibility and very little certainty" as to how the coming weeks and months will unfold.

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"If everything lined up, then we would be feeling good about starting in November," Bayley said when pressed for a rough timeline to a restart. "But we've all been through this enough to realize that you simply can't make those statements. It's a journey of patience."

Like many cruise lines, Royal Caribbean hasn't operated a voyage anywhere in the world since the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic in March. It already has canceled all North American sailings through the end of October. But, it's still selling North American cruises that depart in November. The first sailings in the region now on its schedule are three trips beginning Nov. 1 in Galveston, Texas; Port Canaveral, Florida; and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Still, the line can't restart operations in North America until it gets the blessing of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has jurisdiction over cruise ships sailing in U.S. waters. The agency currently has a "no-sail" order in place for all cruise vessels that carry more than 250 passengers and crew, and it has given little indication that it's ready to reverse the order.

Related: How to book a cruise with points and miles

The sheer scale of Royal Caribbean's biggest ships is sometimes hard for cruising newbies to fathom. Symphony of the Seas, shown here, is 18 decks high and 1,200 feet long. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)
Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas is scheduled to resume sailings from Port Canaveral, Florida, on Nov. 1 -- just six weeks from now. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

While the CDC's no-sail order is set to expire on Sept. 30, many industry watchers expect the agency to extend it for at least another month, maybe longer. The agency in recent weeks has been soliciting public comments on what a cruising comeback in North America should look like, and the comment period is only now coming to an end. In theory, the agency needs time to digest the comments before it can sign off on a restart to operations.

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Bayley said Royal Caribbean had heard nothing from the CDC on whether it planned to extend the no-sail order beyond Sept. 30. But he suggested the line had been buoyed by a drop in new coronavirus cases in North America and some other regions.

"We've been watching the COVID [outbreak] in terms of key markets, and we've been encouraged by the decline [in cases] in most of these markets," Bayley said.

Related: Some cruises already have restarted in Europe

The line also feels like it now has a sound plan to restart operations in a safe way, Bayley suggested.

Bayley talked to TPG just hours after a "healthy sail" panel established by Royal Caribbean's parent company, Royal Caribbean Group, and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings sent the CDC a list of 74 things that cruise lines could do to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus on ships. The list included requiring that passengers get COVID-19 tests before sailings, social distance on ships and wear masks at times on ships.

Royal Caribbean also soon will be submitting its own related plan for a cruising comeback.

"Our hope, of course, is that the panel's recommendations will be reviewed and accepted by the CDC, and [Royal Caribbean's] detailed protocols, which will be submitted in the coming days, will complement that and will be reviewed and accepted," Bayley said.

Related: Some Carnival ships won't resume sailings until March

"We're pretty sure that there will be some back and forth between the CDC and our company in terms of finalizing the details or seeking clarity over certain elements," he added.

Still, even if the CDC were to approve a restart to cruising in U.S. waters tomorrow, a resumption of operations in North America wouldn't be immediate, Bayley said.

"I don't think we can make the statement that we're ready now to go," he explained. "We're still finalizing the details of our protocols and all of the operational requirements necessary to execute [them] flawlessly."

For instance, Bayley said there still were changes the line needs to make to the medical facilities on its ships, and with its technology, to make a restart with the new planned protocols effective. Plus, the line needs to call back crew and get its ships ready to sail.

When Royal Caribbean does restart operations, there's likely to be a "testing phase" during which the line just restarts a single ship or two and operates sailings for employees and their families only, he added.

The idea would be to "put into place all the [new safety] protocols, train all of the crew, prepare everything and test these protocols using our own employees and our families, so that we really can refine the quality not only of the protocols but the experience itself," Bayley said.

"I would be hesitant to make any statements about certainty as it relates to weeks or months [before such a restart]," he added. "What really is important is returning when the timing is right, when we know that we've got everything in place, [when] we've thoroughly reviewed our protocols with the CDC [and] the no-sail order has been lifted. Then, we can commence operations."

Additional resources for cruisers during the coronavirus outbreak:

Featured image by sbw-photo