(1:50 p.m. EST) -- Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings President and Chief Executive Officer Frank Del Rio compared the COVID-19 pandemic to a war, urging travel partners, media and cruisers to continue to expect the unexpected and "continue to adapt."
The comments came during a Thursday webcast with travel advisors, which also included commentary with former FDA commissioner and chairman of Norwegian's SailSAFE program, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, about COVID-19, cruising, and the omicron variant.
Del Rio -- long an advocate for full vaccination mandates aboard Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings' three brands (Norwegian, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas) -- has pulled no punches during the pandemic, refusing to compromise on onboard safety and even going so far as to sue the State of Florida when Governor Ron DeSantis pushed back against Del Rio's requirement that all passengers sailing onboard NCLH ships present proof of full vaccination.
Most recently, NCL and the company's other lines made "the difficult decision to cancel some voyages due to COVID-related circumstances," a decision that Del Rio defended. "Given how quickly omicrons spreads - but also disappears -- we now have to prepare for the next phase of the pandemic."
"The health and safety of our guests, crew and community -- a line that we all use a lot, it's not a tagline for us -- will always be our number one priority," said Del Rio.
COVID-19 On Cruise Ships Has Been Sensationalized for "A Cheap Headline"
During the hour-long call, Gottlieb spoke about COVID-19 and the spread of the omicron variant, giving reason people should be optimistic about the year ahead. He also spoke honestly about cruise, and the perception the industry faces even as it continues to be among the only travel-related industry to report COVID-19 infections onboard.
"Let's face it - at the outset of this entire ordeal, it was one or two cruise ships that personified the spread of this virus," said Gottlieb. "And I don’t' think that's an easy thing to shake. It is a congregate setting where the risk is always going to be apparent, and that's why we've taken the measures we've taken."
Gottlieb stated, however, that any form of travel carries the risk of COVID-19 infection, as do many non-travel-related activities.
"The reality is if you're going on vacation, no matter what you're doing, you're going to be put in congregate settings," said Gottlieb, mentioning airports, restaurants, and airplanes as examples. "You're going to be around people. I don't think the cruise environment is much different than that -- the only difference is we're taking measures to provide assurances people are vaccinated, we're testing, we're masking."
Del Rio spoke bitterly about the fact the data the industry reports to the CDC -- as defined by the agency's Conditional Sail Order -- is used against the industry that is abiding by it.
"The media, and even some politicians, turned to this hard data that we provide," said Del Rio. "And they take this news, and they sensationalize it for a cheap headline.
"We're the only industry they can pick on because we report cases. So, it's something we have to live with, but not something we like."
Omicron Is Likely to Be Last Major Wave of COVID-19, Gottlieb Said
"Pandemics don't last forever," said Gottlieb.
"If you look historically at past pandemics, they last two to five years. We're now three years into this. Given the fact this has spread more quickly around the world, given the fact we've been able to hasten the immunity in the population through vaccinations, you would expect this to be the final year of the pandemic.
"I think this is going to be the year we start to transition out of the pandemic phase and into more of an endemic phase."
Dr. Gottlieb pointed to declining case numbers on the U.S. East Coast, in the UK, and in South Africa, where the omicron variant was first identified and reported in late November 2021.
"It's peaking right now," said Dr. Gottlieb of omicron's spread. "If you look at the epidemiology on the East Coast, certainly -- Florida, New York, and the Tri-state region, New England, Boston and Rhode Island -- you're seeing cases come down week over week. And that's now visible. It has peaked and it's coming down, and that trend is going to continue."
Asked to look into his crystal ball to see how the pandemic ends, Dr. Gottlieb presented a more realistic vision of how COVID-19 could cease to be a daily disruptor in people's lives.
"I've said before I think the pandemic's not going to end with a bang but with a whimper," Gottlieb said. "It's going to end when the prevalence declines, when the individual impact of infection is substantially reduced, when consumer confidence is regained.
"When will that point in time arrive? I think you're already seeing that transition. When we get past this wave of infection, I think we're going to see people want it to change. We're seeing people feel more secure -- many are vaccinated, some have already been infected -- but we want it to change. We want to get back to our normal lives."
"This Pandemic Has Been Our War"
Tourism and hospitality have borne a disproportionate amount of the economic burden of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and cruise has been no exception. The battle to restart, safely and effectively, has been a long, arduous road -- one that, on the plus side, has seen many new innovations and features that will help to keep cruisers safe long after the global health crisis subsides.
"When we started this SailSAFE Panel -- this goes back to the summer of 2020 -- I felt then and I feel now that cruising a leisure activity that lends itself to implementing measures that tightly control the risks you're taking," said Dr. Gottlieb.
"For a consumer, from my standpoint -- and I'm going to be taking a cruise this summer -- I feel very strongly this is an environment where you can calculate the risks. And that's going to be true going forward."
Del Rio concluded the webcast by reinforcing his company's commitment to health and safety.
"We take no chances," he said. "We fight the good fight. Our vigilance and commitment to fighting the good fight will not stop until we get through this pandemic together."
"Every generation before us has had to fight wars," concluded Del Rio. "This pandemic has been our war that has tested our mettle. I am one hundred percent confident we're going to win and win soon.
"This is not the time to give in. "