Oops They Did it Again…Again!

I wrote in my last post that cruising is back, and oh boy is it! I thought that last week was a busy week for the cruise industry, but this past week was even busier. It was fun watching Janet’s head spin as she took in the multiple cruise company announcements and dueling statements from the travel industry and CDC. It felt good. We felt busy again, looking forward to making new bookings for our clients rather than having to continue cancelling and rebooking them.

Cruising is absolutely back, but only for some cruise lines and only for some ships. And it is back no thanks to the CDC. Crystal Cruises and the Royal Caribbean Group made the decision to move some of their ships and itineraries out from under the CDC’s jurisdiction rather than wait for them to approve the resumption of cruising from U.S. ports. On the surface that may seem like an easy decision for any cruise line to make, not too dissimilar than deciding to have a stint put in to keep the blood flowing to your heart. In practice it was more like deciding to go under the knife for a full-blown quadruple bypass operation to create a new pathway for life giving blood to flow around the blockage, in this case the blockage being the CDC.

Carnival Cruise Lines, the mass market brand for the Carnival Cruise Corporation, opted to forego surgery. Their President, Christine Duffy, issued a statement this week announcing that their product appeals to a segment of the American public that prefers shorter duration cruises, doesn’t like the idea of having to fly to another country to start their cruise, and a segment where some balk at the thought of having to get a COVID vaccine just to cruise. All of that is true and just underscores the importance of using a travel advisor to make your travel plans. We know the difference. So far Norwegian Cruise Lines seems to be following Carnival’s lead, though they have yet to issue any statement.

Crystal Cruises and the Royal Caribbean Group, with mass market and premium brands Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruise Lines respectively, decided to go with the surgery. Not only did both companies announce last week that they were redeploying some ships to other countries for operations outside of the CDC’s jurisdiction, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity doubled down with announcements this week of even more ship redeployments. Royal Caribbean International now has about a fourth of their fleet re-positioned outside of the CDC’s jurisdiction to ports more than happy to welcome them. The remainder of their fleet remains at anchor, ready to resume sailing from U.S. ports whenever the CDC gives the green light. And in a heads up move, Royal Caribbean is going with nearly full staffing on the ships they are sailing, even though those ships will be only booked to 40-60% capacity. They are making that move, effectively overstaffing the ships they are sailing, so that whenever the CDC gives the green light for them to resume sailing from the U.S. they will have fully retrained crew members with fresh experience cruising under the guidelines and procedures they adopted from their Healthy Sail Panel ready to transfer to ships currently sitting at anchor.

To be clear, Crystal, Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity couldn’t just move their ships on a whim. They still had to get the approval for operations from the country where their new home ports would be hosted. That meant, among other things, providing adequate assurances in the form of their COVID risk management plans that the risk of cruisers bringing COVID to their country would be minimal and well managed.

Here is a rundown on which ships will be sailing this summer, having moved their home ports and itineraries out of the CDC’s jurisdiction:

Note: these cruise lines require passengers aged 18 and older to be fully vaccinated for COVID to get on the boat, and the host nations require a negative PCR COVID test no later than 72 hours prior to entering their country.

Adventure of the Seas – moving from Port Liberty, New Jersey to a new home port of Nassau, The Bahamas for roundtrip Caribbean itineraries through the summer season.

Celebrity Apex – skipping her spring season Caribbean itineraries from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. For the summer Mediterranean cruise season Celebrity is moving Apex from alternating sailings out of Barcelona, Spain and Rome, Italy to a new home port of Athens Greece and new roundtrip itineraries limited to the Greek Islands, Cyprus, and Crete.

Celebrity Millennium – moving from Seward, Alaska and Vancouver, Canada on Alaska itineraries, to a new home port of St. Martin for roundtrip Caribbean itineraries through the summer season.

Crystal Serenity – moving from Miami to a new homeport of Nassau, The Bahamas for a variety of Caribbean itineraries through the summer season.

Grandeur of the Seas – moving from Baltimore to a new home port of Bridgetown, Barbados for roundtrip Caribbean itineraries through the winter season of 2021/2022. Note that Royal Caribbean had originally sold Grandeur to Pullmantur cruise lines in 2019 but ownership hadn’t changed hands when Pullmantur declared bankruptcy, prompting Royal Caribbean to find a place for her in their fleet.

Jewel of the Seas – moving from Canada/New England itineraries out of Boston to a new home port of Limassol, Cyprus for Greek Isle itineraries for the summer season. If you haven’t ever had the pleasure of visiting Limassol I can tell you first hand it is a treat.

Odyssey of the Seas – moving from Rome, Italy with roundtrip Mediterranean itineraries, to a new home port of Haifa, Israel for Greek Isle itineraries. These sailings are limited to residents of Israel only for now, but look for these cruises to be expanded to other nationalities later in the summer if Israel opens up their borders to allow vaccinated Americans into the country.

Quantum of the Seas – the only ship sailing with no change in her home port and itinerary, still sailing roundtrip itineraries out of Singapore.

Vision of the Seas – moving from San Juan, Puerto Rico to a new homeport at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Bermuda for roundtrip Caribbean itineraries through the summer season.

Most of these sailings start in June and if any of them interest you, give us a call soon as they will book up given the restricted capacity limits. Seeing this list gives me pause. It makes me wonder whether or not the CDC is trying to be helpful to anybody other than themselves as they continue to dither when other countries have accepted Crystal, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity’s COVID plans and given them the OK to cruise from their countries. Heck, even the European Union has approved at least a limited return to cruising. The CDC has done nothing except continue to kick the can down the road, with one exception. The CDC has approved a couple of small cruise lines’ requests to return to sailing operations.

These small cruise lines operate small ships, sailing with fewer than 200 passengers. The companies are incorporated within the U.S., sail ships built in the U.S., and those ships are staffed with crew members who are mostly U.S. citizens. That gives these small cruise lines special standing with regard to laws Congress passed back in the late 1800s that were isolationist by nature. For the CDC to continue perpetuating that isolationism by approving a handful of US only cruise lines to resume sailing while holding the rest of the cruise industry at arm’s length is disturbing to me. Particularly when I consider these smaller cruise lines market almost exclusively to the 70 and older age demographic, the group most at risk for bad outcomes from the COVID-19 virus. I just don’t get it.

On the positive side, if you are considering a cruise with one of the mainstream cruise lines, there is empirical data to back up their claims that their health and safety plans that address the risk of COVID-19 are effective. According to the President and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), a major trade group for the cruise industry, “Over the past eight months, a highly-controlled resumption of cruising has continued in Europe, Asia, and the South Pacific—with nearly 400,000 passengers sailing to date in more than 10 major cruise markets…These voyages were successfully completed with industry-leading protocols that have effectively mitigated against the spread of COVID-19.” According to an article in TR Business, fewer than 50 cases of the COVID-19 virus were reported out of those 400,000 passengers cruising.

Earlier this week Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s Senior Vice President for Sales, provided travel agents with an update on their safe return to cruising. In the update Vicki related how Royal Caribbean has integrated the recommendations from the independent panel of experts they commissioned last year to help them figure out how to return to sailing safely. Here is what Vicki had to share, “We have been closely connected with the Healthy Sail Panel, who has worked with amazing diligence on these topics. We’re happy to share that out of our 100,000 passengers who have sailed with Royal Caribbean Group (since their return to sailing in non-CDC controlled areas), only 10 positive cases have been reported. There have been very few infections, all of which have been handled smoothly, while protecting our guests and the surrounding communities we visit.”

So OK, maybe a bit of the fox guarding the henhouse, but not really. The cruise lines are required to report these things, and to back their reporting up with supporting facts and documentation, not just to the CDC but similar public health and safety organizations worldwide. Do I believe them? Yes, I do. WOW…10 cases of COVID-19 out of 100,000 passengers sailed from the second largest cruise company in the world. Fewer than 50 cases out of 400,000 passengers sailing with all cruise lines. And that’s from cruises without mandatory vaccines. I don’t know of any land-based activity that can boast similar numbers, to include socially isolating at home. I remember last summer when New York Governor Cuomo announced after a study of hospital emergency room admissions in his state, that 66% of the patients who visited the ER with COVID had contracted the virus while self-isolating at home. Airlines continue to fly, but cruise ships are forced to continue sitting at anchor. I can’t speak to why the CDC hasn’t allowed the cruise lines to make progress toward getting back to sea even after being faced with such overwhelming empirical data to prove they have already done so safely in other markets. I can only surmise it stems from well-intended but ultimately petty bureaucratic maneuvering. After a 38-year career in the government myself I can tell you it happens, often with the best of intentions but usually with the worst of outcomes.

Two of the travel industry’s largest advocacy groups, CLIA and the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) have been lobbying with both the Executive and Legislative branches of our government to take what actions their respective authorities permit in an effort to allow cruising to return with appropriate safety measures in place. Their efforts to date have been to no avail. Congress is busy with other things, and the CDC issued a statement in response to the CLIA and ASTA lobbying efforts making it clear they continue to pursue a status quo approach. The CDC has done nothing to help cruise lines safely return to cruising since they released their Conditional Return to Sailing Order (CSO) back in October. The CSO itself did nothing to guide cruise lines back to safe sailing…it simply levied an exhaustive series of bureaucratic hurdles that have nothing to do with safety but which cruise lines have to clear before the CDC issues the necessary certifications for any cruise ship to return to operations within their jurisdiction. The statement went on to make it clear the CDC’s intent is to keep their CSO in place for a full year, through its planned expiration date of November 1st, 2021, and went on to say that the CDC has begun interagency coordination for the next phase of their conditional return to sailing order. That doesn’t sound like a return to cruising from U.S. ports is going to come anytime soon, though I hope I am wrong. Crystal Cruises, Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity aren’t taking any chances. They have moved nearly a fourth of their fleet out from CDC jurisdiction in a safe and legal manner, and they are back to cruising!

In the interests of full disclosure, I suppose I should note that the CDC still recommends that all people avoid travel on cruise ships worldwide because, “…the chance of getting COVID-19 on cruise ships is high, since the virus appears to spread more easily between people in close quarters aboard ships.” Really CDC? How about now? With fewer than 50 cases of COVID-19 out of 400,000 people having cruised, most without being vaccinated, don’t you think it’s about time you updated that position? Perhaps it is time you start listening to yourselves and follow the science. Stop playing the “what if” game and start dealing in the knowns. The cruise lines have amassed overwhelming empirical data proving the case that cruising with the measures they took from the Healthy Sail Panel and others like it is safe. Add the protection of vaccination on top of that, and I have to ask…what are you waiting for? It IS safe to go back into the water.

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