Israel, of all places, is about to be one of the world's biggest cruise hubs
Israel, of all places, is about to become one of the world's biggest hubs for cruising -- at least for a month or two.
In an unexpected move, cruise giant Royal Caribbean on Monday announced it would deploy its newest vessel -- the 4,198-passenger Odyssey of the Seas -- to the country starting in May for cruises to the Mediterranean.
Assuming the voyages go ahead as planned, Odyssey of the Seas will be only the second Royal Caribbean ship to begin operating anywhere in the world since the coronavirus pandemic brought a halt to cruising in March 2020. It also likely will be one of just a handful of cruise ships sailing anywhere in the world in May. That'll catapult Israel into the ranks of the world's leading cruise hubs for at least a brief period of time.
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Most major cruise lines have canceled all or most of their sailings worldwide through at least June.
Royal Caribbean's announcement comes just a day after Israel's fastest-in-the-world COVID-19 vaccine campaign reached a significant milestone with more than 50% of the population vaccinated for the illness. Almost 90% of Israelis over the age of 50 have been fully vaccinated.
By contrast, only about 7.5% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated. About 15% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Israel's rapid vaccination of its population is allowing the country to loosen coronavirus-related restrictions sooner than many other places, making activities such as cruising possible again. The country has launched a “green passport” system that lets vaccinated citizens have access to gyms, hotels, theaters and other indoor venues.
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"Thanks to the millions of vaccines we have brought, I am proud that Israel will be the first country in the world to launch Royal Caribbean's new flagship," Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday in a statement. "Royal Caribbean's decision to come to Israel is a significant expression of confidence in our policy."
Royal Caribbean said the voyages out of Israel initially would be open only to residents of Israel.
"We are thrilled to debut Royal Caribbean cruises from Israel with our newest and most innovative ship, Odyssey of the Seas," Royal Caribbean president and CEO Michael Bayley said in a statement. "Israeli travelers will be looking to get away, relax with total peace of mind, and enjoy the travel experiences they are missing dearly; and that is what we do best."
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Using the port of Haifa, Israel, as a base, Royal Caribbean plans a range of three- to seven-night voyages from the country through the summer that feature stops in the Greek Isles and Cyprus.
The trips will be notable on several levels. For starters, they will mark the first voyages ever for Royal Caribbean out of Israel, which traditionally has not been a hub for cruising.
Odyssey of the Seas also will be the biggest cruise ship ever to sail from Israel. At around 169,300 tons, Odyssey of the Seas will be the world's 13th largest cruise ship when it debuts.
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But perhaps more notably, the deployment is just the latest sign that the initial return to cruising at many lines will feature voyages in unexpected places as progress in vaccinating populations and reducing COVID-19 case counts proceeds at different rates around the world.
Royal Caribbean, the world's largest cruise line, is best known for cruises in the Caribbean, Europe and Alaska. But so far, the only place in the world where it has been able to resume cruising is Asia, out of the port of Singapore. With new COVID-19 cases near zero in Singapore, the line launched new cruises out of the city-state in December with a single ship, Quantum of the Seas. The voyages only are open to local Singaporean residents.
Quantum of the Seas had been scheduled to spend the coming summer sailing in Alaska, but Royal Caribbean recently announced it would remain in Singapore for the summer to continue with the voyages for local Singapore residents.
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The new Royal Caribbean ship that will be sailing out of Israel, Odyssey of the Seas, had been scheduled to begin sailing out of Civitavecchia, Italy (the port for Rome) in May on Mediterranean voyages that were aimed at Americans just as much as Europeans. But with U.S. travel to many European countries still restricted due to the coronavirus pandemic, such voyages are looking less viable -- at least for the early part of summer.
Under construction since early 2019 at a shipyard in Germany and due for delivery to Royal Caribbean in the coming weeks, Odyssey of the Seas was named one of the nine most anticipated new cruise ships of the year by TPG.
While not quite as big as Royal Caribbean’s record-breaking Symphony of the Seas (the world’s largest cruise ship), Odyssey of the Seas will have all the trappings of a major megaresort, including multiple pool areas, a kiddie aqua park and such amusements as a sky-diving simulator, a surfing simulator and a bumper car pavilion. It'll offer a something-for-everyone array of cabin classes that range from tiny, 166-square-foot “inside” cabins without a window to massive, two-deck-high Royal Loft Suites that are nearly 10 times that size.
In restarting cruising in the Mediterranean with its newest ship, Royal Caribbean is following in the wake of MSC Cruises. MSC Cruises in August restarted cruises in the Mediterranean with its newest vessel, MSC Grandiosa.
Other lines have hinted that they, too, initially will resume cruising with their newest vessels, which also are their most efficient vessels.
After spending an initial summer sailing out of Civitavecchia, Italy, Odyssey of the Seas had been scheduled to redeploy to Fort Lauderdale in the fall for sailings to the Caribbean. For now, the redeployment still is on the schedule, Royal Caribbean said Monday.
Royal Caribbean's new itineraries out of Israel will feature stops at the Greek islands of Rhodes, Santorini and Mykonos as well as Piraeus, Greece (the port for Athens); and Limassol, Cyprus.
Royal Caribbean has been eyeing Israel as a cruise hub for "quite some time," Bayley said in his statement.
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"We greatly appreciate the government of Israel for their collaboration and confidence in us to deliver memorable cruise experiences to their residents, and look forward to delivering on that promise aboard our newest ship – the first 'Green Island' at sea," he said.
Netanyahu called the development an "important economic, touristic moment" for the country.
"Israel is a global model of success," Netanyahu said. "We will continue our program – the 'green passport' – so that we can get out of the COVID-19 virus in peace. Just as we made Israel the world champion in vaccines, we will make it the world champion in economics and tourism in the post-Corona era."
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