If you can't beat them, move elsewhere.
That's what cruise lines are increasingly doing, as the year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic has come and gone. With the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continuing to offer up little to no progress in allowing the safe resumption of sailings within the United States, cruise lines have begun taking their operations to countries that will.
Already, cruises have popped up in Singapore and will begin in May in Israel, countries where virus rates are low and vaccine rates are high. The UK recently determined ocean voyages for domestic passengers could resume in May, leading lines such as P&O, Cunard, Fred. Olsen, MSC, Princess and Viking to announce domestic, "round Britain" cruises exclusively for UK residents.
And now the Royal Caribbean Group, which includes Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises, has announced summer restarts for two of their ships in Europe -- Jewel of the Seas in Cyprus from July and Celebrity Apex in Athens from June, offering itineraries around the Greek islands and Israel.
Progress is finally being made on the this side of the Atlantic, too. Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean and Crystal have all announced summer 2021 cruises leaving from new homeports outside of the United States, as a way to safely resume sailings for fully-vaccinated passengers.
Crystal Cruises started the exodus, placing Crystal Serenity in Nassau and Bimini in the Bahamas for the first time in its history. It's offering weeklong Bahamian itineraries for vaccinated passengers.
Two Royal Caribbean Group lines followed. Celebrity Cruises will send its Celebrity Millennium on sailings out of St. Maarten beginning in June, while Royal Caribbean will homeport Adventure of the Seas out of Nassau, also starting in June, and Vision of the Seas in Bermuda as of late June.
The Bahamian government has warmly welcomed and encouraged the cruise industry to homeport in the country. Other Caribbean ports of call -- including Cozumel, Mexico -- are rumoured to be courting the cruise industry as well. The longer the CDC delays on its industry guidance, the more the trend will continue.
The news that Celebrity and Royal Caribbean would be restarting in the Caribbean was enthusiastically welcomed by travel agents and cruise passengers alike. Many cruisers had begun to worry that the CDC's slow reaction would impact cruises in North America for much of the year.
“Celebrity Cruises continues to be a leader, and I am so thrilled they have announced a safe return to sailing option for American cruisers,” said Vicky Garcia, COO of Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative.
“Celebrity has found a creative solution with a beautiful Eastern Caribbean itinerary while still delivering a great onboard experience. I am vaccinated, and I'm ready to sail now. American cruisers are excited a major cruise line has provided an option in the Caribbean for those who are eager to cruise while following safely protocols."
Cruise Critic members were also excited about the prospect of a firm summer restart in the Caribbean.
"I was happy to see this announcement by Celebrity as our chances of our September Spain cruise just got a little better," writes terrydx on the Cruise Critic message boards. "I like that all passengers and crew member MUST be fully vaccinated and show proof of a negative PCR test within 72 hours of arrival in St Martin. My wife and I will be fully vaccinated after we get our second shot on March 30th."
"I wonder if over time (a couple of years?) RCG and other lines form relationships at these foreign ports/countries and keep home ports there long term," writes Hoopster95 on the Royal Caribbean board. "Would be great to have a week on land combined with a week cruise (same with Barbados for example)."
A Search for Diverse Homeports
Since the events of 9/11, the primary focus for the cruise industry has been American "drive-to" cruise ports that do not require domestic flights for a majority of passengers. These homeports and their related itineraries haven't measurably changed in two decades.
But a look into the not-so-distant history books reveals a wide variety of Caribbean homeports outside the United States. In 1993, for example, Regency Cruises operated out of Montego Bay aboard two ships. Renaissance sailed out of Antigua. Windstar sailed from Barbados. Dolphin and Seawind Cruise Line operated from Aruba. Royal Cruise Line ran out of Nassau aboard Golden Odyssey.
Returning to homeport diversity could change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing. While many of those cruise lines are gone, the ports -- and pier infrastructure -- are still there.
A Short Term Solution
U.S-based homeports will continue to remain important to the cruise industry, particularly with mainstream cruise lines. Only 42 percent of Americans held a passport in 2018, compared with 66 percent of Canadians and 76 percent of UK citizens. Drive-to ports of embarkation that do not require the use of a passport for a closed-loop Caribbean cruise will continue to be important to the industry, as a large percentage of American still passengers still opt to embark with a birth certificate and driver's license.
There are also a fair number of people who have yet to be vaccinated, or have no interest in doing so. They will be shut out from this crop of sailings.
The lines seem attuned to that. Neither of the ships that Celebrity and Royal are deploying are their largest. Nor are the seasons very long, lasting only from June 2021 through August 2021.
Still, as long as cruising remains on-pause within the United States due to the CDC's long-standing No-Sail order, it is clear that more and more lines will go abroad to restart operations. And that will hurt U.S. homeports and American workers.
Still Waiting On The CDC
None of that, however, will change until the CDC begins working more proactively with the industry, providing the technical guidance on restart that still has yet to be delivered to cruise lines nearly five months later.
The lines are continuing to seek dialogue with the agency. But the lines are also subject to extensive regulations from the CDC that do not apply to other businesses or forms of travel, including hotel, resort or airline industries.
Many of the protocols put in place by the cruise lines – a vaccination mandate for both guests and workers, robust and mandatory PCR testing among them – are not required for other forms of travel.
There is some hope that a positive track record outside the United States might influence the CDC.
Broadening the homeport repertoire may eventually pay off for cruise lines in the long run. Focusing on international homeports has opened new markets. Royal Caribbean, for example, has found their Singapore cruises on Quantum of the Seas so successful, it has extended the season.
Moving Odyssey of the Seas to Israel is also bringing cruising into a lucrative source market.
In the meantime, people who love cruising and international travel – and don't mind getting vaccinated – have the ability to return to their favorite pastime.