Why US cruises are still stuck in port

The New York Times
WashingtonWritten By: Ceylan Yeginsu © 2021 The New York TimesUpdated: Mar 21, 2021, 08:13 PM IST

Image for representation Photograph:(AFP)

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Cruise lines are still waiting for technical instructions from Center for Disease Control and Prevention

In October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted its “no sail” order on U.S. cruise ships and set out a framework that would allow them to start sailing again, bringing relief and hope to a decimated industry — and to many cruise fans.

And then, nothing.

Nearly six months later, cruise lines are still waiting for technical instructions from the agency, which will allow them to prepare their ships for simulation voyages, designed to test whether they can safely sail.

In other parts of the world, the industry is stirring to life. Some cruise lines plan to restart domestic cruises in Europe later this month and voyages around the British Isles are scheduled for June, when lockdown restrictions are expected to be lifted. Royal Caribbean is running cruises to Greece from the Israeli port of Haifa this spring that will require all the crew and passengers on board to be fully vaccinated.

The CDC says its current focus is working with cruise lines to implement the initial phase requirements of testing all crew and setting up onboard labs as part of a step-by-step approach for the return of passenger cruising. The framework includes extensive testing, quarantine measures and social distancing, but the details remain unclear.

“Future orders and technical instructions will address additional activities to help cruise lines prepare for and return to passenger operations in a manner that mitigates COVID-19 risk among passengers, crew members, including simulated voyages, certification for conditional sailing and restricted voyages,” the agency said in a statement.

The halt on sailings, first issued for American cruises on March 14, 2020, has ravaged the cruise industry, with companies reporting billions of dollars in losses, causing some of them to downsize their fleets and sell ships for scrap.

Now, with vaccinations underway across the world and infection rates dropping in some regions, cruise companies are scrambling to prepare their ships for a gradual return starting in Europe and Asia. In the United States, cruise fans will likely have to wait at least until the fall.

“We are hopeful for this year,” said Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of the cruise news site Cruise Critic. “There have already been some success stories out of Europe where cruise lines have shown that they’ve got great protocols in place, that they are committed to adhering to them, that they can keep passengers in a bubble and that they can do effective testing. We can expect those learnings to help inform cruising in the United States.”

While the timetable remains fluid, here’s what we can expect from cruising over the next few months.

Q: When will I be able to go on a cruise again?

A: Good question. Most cruise ships remain idled in open waters or in ports across the globe as sailings continue to be postponed or canceled.

In Europe, some of the smaller cruise lines are planning to restart operations later this month. AIDA Cruises has scheduled an excursion around the Canary Islands from March 20 and will be followed by Costa Cruises, which plans to resume Italian sailings on March 27. MSC Cruises is also planning a European voyage in May that will only be open to passengers living in the European Union’s Schengen zone.

Last summer, some cruise companies resumed operations in Europe with strict health and safety protocols but shut them down again in the fall after some ships reported cases of COVID-19 and the region went back into lockdown in response to a resurgence of the virus.

In Britain, domestic cruises could begin from May 17, when lockdowns on the hospitality sector are expected to be eased, the ministry of transport said earlier this month.

Princess, P&O, Cunard and Hurtigruten are among the cruise lines that have announced “staycation sailings” around the British Isles this summer. Some ships will sail around the country’s coastline without calling at any ports, while others will offer shore excursions.

“People are very excited to start cruising again and we are seeing tons of demand right now, particularly in the expedition space,” said John Downey, the president of the Americas for Hurtigruten, a Norwegian line specializing in expedition cruises.

“We will continue to focus on amazing, remote destinations where our guests are more often surrounded by wildlife and nature rather than human populations,” he added. “With stringent health protocols we put in place, we feel very comfortable about the safety of our guests and crew.”

Q: Why is the United States lagging?

A: Major cruise companies are waiting for the CDC to issue technical requirements to help them prepare their ships for sailings. They must then give the CDC 30 days notice before starting test cruises with volunteer crew and passengers and will have to apply for a conditional sailing certificate 60 days before a planned regular voyage.

“The reality is that there was no way the cruise lines could adhere to the guidelines the CDC set back in October and start sailing again because they provided two-thirds of the pieces for the puzzle,” said Stewart Chiron, a cruise industry analyst and CEO of the site, referring to the missing technical details in the conditional sailing order.

“They are waiting for it now and they expect them to update their guidance because it was issued before the vaccines were rolled out and a lot has changed since then,” Chiron added.

Cruise executives say they expect the CDC to issue the technical requirements soon.

Q: What’s going on with Alaskan cruises?

A: Little known quirks of maritime law have led some cruise lines that specialize in Alaskan expeditions to cancel all sailings from ports in the Lower 48 states through the end of 2021.

Although they seem like American companies, many of the big cruise lines like Princess and Holland America, are, in fact, foreign-owned. According to United States law, foreign-flagged cruise ships are not permitted to cruise between U.S. ports without first visiting at least one foreign port. So cruises from Western cities like Seattle have typically stopped in Vancouver, British Columbia, on their way to Alaska.

But in February, Canadian authorities extended their ban on cruising through February 2022, effectively shutting down the Alaskan cruise business until then.

Earlier this month, senators introduced a bill that would waive the requirement that ships stop in a foreign port, but a vote could still be months off.

While Alaska cruises are on hold, cruise companies are pivoting to offer land tours of the state using their lodging and tour networks.

Q: What safety measures will be in place?

A: With coronavirus measures constantly changing, it is difficult to predict exactly what cruises will look like, especially in the United States.

Last year, the Cruise Lines International Association, the industry group that represents most of the largest cruise companies, announced a mandatory set of health protocols that will be implemented as part of a phased-in resumption of operations.

The core elements include:

Testing: 100% of passengers and crew will be tested for COVID-19 before embarkation.

Mask-Wearing: All passengers and crew will have to wear masks onboard and during excursions whenever they can’t physically distance.

Distancing: Physical distancing in terminals, onboard ships, on private islands and during shore excursions will be required.

Ventilation: Air management and ventilation strategies to increase fresh air onboard must be in place and, where feasible, enhanced filters and other technologies to mitigate risk will be used.

Medical Capability: Each ship must have a plan to manage possible medical needs and must allocate cabins for isolation in case of an outbreak. Advance arrangements must be made with providers of onshore transportation and medical facilities.

Shore Excursion: Operators must set health and safety protocols and make sure passengers comply. Those who don’t will be prohibited from re-boarding.

“Ultimately, our decisions will be informed by our global medical and science experts and the requirements of the places we operate and visit,” said Roger Frizzell, a spokesperson for Carnival Corporation. “Our highest responsibility and top priorities are compliance, environmental protection, and the health, safety and well-being of our guests, crew and the communities we visit.”

Q: Will vaccinations be required?

A: Some companies are reluctant to depend on testing alone, after the SeaDream 1, a ship that had aspired to be a model for a safe return to cruising, cut short its Caribbean voyage last year because several passengers tested positive for the coronavirus, despite the fact they’d had a negative test before boarding.

Most major cruise lines have not decided whether they will require vaccinations for future sailings and are waiting for further scientific guidance once inoculation becomes more widespread around the globe.

In Britain, Saga Cruises and P&O said that they would require all guests to be fully vaccinated before boarding their ships throughout 2021. Royal Caribbean announced sailings from Israel to Greece in May, where all crew members and passengers over the age of 16 must be vaccinated.

“It is really exciting to see how quickly and dramatically the science has advanced, even in just a few weeks,” said Richard D. Fain, chairman and CEO of the Royal Caribbean Group. “We’ve been getting more and more experience with sailings abroad out of Germany, Singapore, the Canary Islands and Italy and we will continue to learn and adapt as new knowledge and scientific discoveries like the vaccine come to the fore.”