An advantage the cruise industry has long had is its ability move its ships away from unrest, natural disasters or regional economic downturns.
Then came Covid-19, and it proved impossible to sail away from.
But now that the global fleet has been almost entirely at anchor for more than a year — even as hotels, resorts and airplanes have long been in operation — cruise lines are realizing there is something they can sail away from: Regulation.
Frustration over the CDC’s inertia on cruising reached a boiling point this month, with calls for the agency to do something coming not just from cruise lines but from mayors, governors and senators whose constituents depend on the industry’s restart to make a living.
At some cruise lines, patience has run out. The Royal Caribbean Group is launching cruises this spring and summer from Israel, Cyprus, Greece, Bermuda, the U.K., the Bahamas and St. Maarten, on its Celebrity and Royal Caribbean International brands.
Royal’s chairman Richard Fain last week was pretty clear about where he stood on the CDC stalemate. He told travel advisors that being in the first phase of the CDC’s four-phase Conditional Sailing Order (CSO) since the order was written in October, and not knowing the requirements to move to phase 2, was “unworkable for us, and for the CDC. We think that the science has simply moved ahead of the CSO.”
Fain, CLIA and ASTA are among many voices arguing that the CSO is “out of date” and doesn’t reflect advances in vaccines, testing and contact tracing, nor does it take into account the fact that people are flying, staying at resorts and going to amusement parks.
How outdated is the order? Well for one thing, the word vaccine is only mentioned twice, and in both contexts, it is in reference to there not being any approved vaccines in the U.S.
The Royal Caribbean and Celebrity sailings announced this month, meanwhile, are only open to fully vaccinated adults (children 17 and under have to test negative in order to sail).
For many Americans, especially those in the Northeast, flying to Bermuda or the Bahamas takes no longer than going to Miami or Fort Lauderdale.
And that is what politicians seem most fed up about: As Florida governor Ron DeSantis said, “If you say they can’t sail in the U.S., people will still be taking cruises. Instead of flying to Orlando or Fort Lauderdale, you’ll have people fly to the Bahamas and other places. So the activity won’t be any different; it’s just going to be detrimental to states like Florida that have so many people who depend on this industry for their livelihood.”
The CDC also doesn’t seem to take into account the hundreds of cruises that have sailed during the pandemic from Italy, Singapore, Germany and the Canary Islands, with a rate of infection far better than anywhere in the U.S.: On the 150 cruises the Royal Group’s brands have sailed, Fain said that out of the more than 100,000 guests, only 10 people tested positive for the Covid-19 virus.
And from the CDC’s perspective, in terms of risk, is there any difference between an American who boards a flight to Nassau, takes a cruise and is tested before flying home, or one who flies to Miami and does the same thing? As of now, per the CDC’s current order, cruise lines would have to test passengers at disembarkation.
It’s not surprising that while Miami’s mayor, Florida’s governor and Alaska’s congressional delegations seem to be whistling in the wind with the CDC, Royal has found many very willing partners in other ports. While ships sit idle in the cruise capital of the world, Royal Caribbean’s newest vessel will become the first major cruise line’s ship to homeport in Israel, which prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called “an important economic and touristic moment” for the nation.