(5:16 a.m. EDT) -- As health authorities further relax COVID-19 travel restrictions and consumer confidence continues to rise, cruise lines have gradually moved to eliminate occupancy caps on their ships.
The CDC's recent changes to its COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships Operating in U.S. is the latest bolster that justifies most cruise lines decision to end reduced capacity.
Additionally, major cruise lines are increasingly seeing their entire fleet return to service. Carnival became the first major line to hit that milestone in early May, with the departure of Carnival Splendor from Seattle on May 2.
Citing guidance from the CDC as well has health authorities in other countries, Celebrity Cruises dropped occupancy limits as demand continues to rise month over month.
"We sailed at reduced capacity to get back," Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, President and CEO of Celebrity Cruises, told the UK media and travel agents during the first Celebrity Beyond mini-sailing. "Please go back and fill these ships."
Soon to double their hardware with the upcoming arrivals of new ships Resilient Lady and Brilliant Lady -- set to debut in August 2022 and sometime in 2023, respectively -- Virgin Voyages is also not restricting capacity of the fleet to 50% any more.
"Our Voyage Well protocols are working so we felt comfortable re-evaluating the capacity restrictions," said a spokesperson.
"We haven't sailed at capacity just yet, but we're excited to welcome both new-to-cruise and past sailors on-board without limitation."
The Road to 100% Capacity
Royal Caribbean International President and CEO Michael Bayley predicted on an earnings call with investors that most ships should be back to full capacity again, particularly as Memorial Day weekend draws closer.
Bayley also mentioned that select sailings have already recorded full capacity. "We have ships now sailing at 100% and we've had ships sailing at 100% now for several weeks out of the Caribbean, into the Caribbean market and a short product." The Royal Caribbean Executive added that the cruise line's Oasis Class ships have been sailing at 80% capacity or soon.
Speaking onboard Royal's new ship -- the 5,700+-passenger Wonder of the Seas -- Ben Bouldin, VP EMEA, admitted that the world's largest cruise ship still has a ways to go before reaching full capacity.
"The reality is the season will start more gradually than that, but there is a good number of passengers on that sailing. On the crossing we had 3,600 passengers and the number of passengers builds as the season goes through," Bouldin explained. "The expectation is that we will get beyond 100% load factor as we get through the season, and that’s pretty much the story across the fleet."
SVP International Sales, Sean Treacy, added: "We’re ramping up our Europe season, but we plan for the second half of the year, including our Europe season, we're expecting to get back to 100%, 100%+, historical full occupancies."
Cruisers Are Not As Keen as Cruise Lines On Full Ships
However, while cruise lines are understandably ready to return to full capacity, cruisers have become accustomed to the spacious experience afforded by limited capacity voyages.
On a Cruise Critic Reader Poll conducted earlier this month, just 18% of responders are eager for ships to return to full capacity. In sharp contrast, 77% of those surveyed indicated that they do not think it's yet time for cruise ships to return to full capacity. And of that total, 56% feel that lines should continue to be cautious in order to keep passengers safe.
The other 44% believe cruises are indeed safe, but love having the extra space on board.