Cruise lines are slowly moving ship after ship abroad after more than a year without sailing in U.S. waters due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Typically, Americans represent nearly half of cruisers on an annual basis, and nearly half of cruises worldwide depart from U.S. ports, according to a 2019 report from Cruise Lines International Association, the industry's leading trade organization.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "conditional sailing order" is keeping ships from sailing stateside without a clear timeline for resumption, though the CDC has said that midsummer cruising could be feasible if cruise lines adhere to the agency's order and meet its requirements.
Major cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Virgin Voyages have announced sailings in other parts of the world, including the Caribbean, the United Kingdom and Israel. Carnival Cruise Line has threatened the same.
Frank Del Rio, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd., which includes Norwegian Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania Cruises, told USA TODAY that the cruise industry has been shut down in the U.S. for long enough. Norwegian, along with the industry, some politicians and other travel sector members have pushed the CDC to allow ships to sail.
Del Rio believes it is safe to cruise, especially given his company's commitment to fully vaccinated sailings. Norwegian announced earlier this month that all passengers and crew must be fully vaccinated ahead of boarding. Del Rio sent a letter to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky announcing the vaccine requirement and his company's desire to sail in the U.S. by July.
"If the CDC won't listen to reason, well, we'll move our ships out of the U.S.," Del Rio said.
Where are cruises sailing from if not in the US?
While many ships across Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd.'s fleet traditionally have summer seasons outside of the U.S., Del Rio said that of the three ships that will be sailing this summer, two are in new home ports.
Norwegian Cruise Line, the company's flagship line, announced earlier this month that it is planning its official return to service for late July with sailings in Europe from Greece and in the Caribbean with sailings from Jamaica and the Dominican Republic that are not typical. Usually, Del Rio said, Norwegian would operate the itineraries set to sail from Jamaica and the Dominican Republic from Miami.
"The reason we're doing it now is, quite frankly, we're fed up with waiting for the CDC to allow us to cruise," Del Rio said.
And American passengers don't seem to be deterred from crossing an ocean to get on a ship. Approximately 80% of bookings for the company's newly announced Greek itineraries have been made by Americans.
Repositioning of ships to sail from ports outside of U.S. waters could continue if the CDC continues to block cruising into the fall, he added.
Virgin Voyages has also shifted its schedule to launch the cruise line's first ship, Scarlet Lady, in the United Kingdom this summer with sailings open to U.K. residents. The ship was meant to sail from Miami. The decision to move was partially due to the CDC's restrictions, Tom McAlpin, president and CEO of Virgin, told USA TODAY.
Royal Caribbean International announced sailings in Bermuda and the Bahamas in March, which may be appealing to Americans who regularly cruise the Caribbean but typically leave from Florida.
"At this time we are exploring options around the world and have worked closely with government and health authorities globally to get back to what we do best: provide world-class vacations to our guests," Jonathon Fishman, spokesperson for Royal Caribbean, told USA TODAY.
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It's the first time the cruise line will sail from Bermuda and the Bahamas. The cruise line has been offering sailings to residents of Singapore on the Quantum of the Seas for months.
Celebrity Cruises, a sister line to Royal Caribbean International, also announced in March that it will be operating cruises out of St. Maarten starting June 5.
Kelly Craighead, president and CEO of CLIA, told USA TODAY that if the CDC doesn't allow sailing soon that it wouldn't be surprising if more ships are scheduled to sail out of the U.S.
"If there's not some movement, if we can't see that there's a real path forward to resuming sailing, you can imagine the trend towards moving to other locations," Craighead said, noting she hopes that the industry can work with the health agency to move ahead with cruising in U.S. waters.
Will cruises return to US home ports when they can?
Del Rio said that time will tell whether these new home ports could become permanent.
"If we find it is equally as profitable if not more profitable, to operate from the Dominican Republic and Jamaica versus Miami – even when the CDC gets around to opening us up – we will keep those ships there," Del Rio said.
If it becomes permanent, "that's the long-term price the CDC will have paid for keeping us out of business for as long as they have," Del Rio added.
But Craighead doesn't believe that cruises will stay away from U.S. waters when sailing can restart.
"The convenience of departing from U.S. ports is something I imagine will always be taken into consideration, in part because we have places like Miami, which is the cruise capital of the world," Craighead said.
US ports, communities struggle as cruise ships move
"I definitely understand the cruise lines' decisions to put ships offshore because that is the only place right now where they can operate," Juan Kuryla, director and CEO of PortMiami, told USA TODAY, noting if he were a cruise line CEO, he would do the same.
But the situation hasn't been easy on PortMiami or the city itself. More than 60% of PortMiami's revenue comes from cruising, according to Kuryla.
"Obviously it's concerning," Kuryla said, nodding to the more than 100,000 jobs created by the cruise industry in Florida.
"Those jobs are now going to be transferred or created at other ports outside of the United States," Kuryla said.
And there's an astronomical economic impact from the cruising shutdown that goes beyond ports and cruise lines, according to Christian Savelli, vice president of research and business analytics for CLIA.
"Beginning in mid-March 2020 up until the end of March 2021, the estimated direct impact of the suspension of cruise operations in the USA will be a loss of $17 billion in direct spending and 114,675 American jobs, representing $5.5 billion in direct wages," Savelli said.
Factoring in the indirect impact raises that estimate to a loss of nearly $39 billion, representing 301,000 American jobs.
Legislators play tug of war over cruise industry restart
Some legislators are pushing the CDC to allow cruises to restart while others are asking the agency to continue to hold off on allowing ships to sail due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
In a letter sent last week, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., urged the CDC's Walensky to maintain current restrictions on cruising.
Their letter came on the heels of a lawsuit brought by Florida against the CDC, which Alaska has joined, and new legislation proposed by Republican Sen. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio of Florida and Dan Sullivan of Alaska aiming to override the CDC's restrictions on cruising and get ships sailing by July.
United States Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg also weighed in on the cruise industry's slow restart at a White House press briefing on April 9.
"Well, the bottom line is safety," he said. "Airplanes have one safety profile; cruise ships have another, vehicles have another. And each one needs to be treated based on what’s safe for that sector."
"I know that CDC is hopeful that a lot of these operators will be in a position to be sailing by midsummer," Buttigieg continued.
CDC working with cruise industry to get sailings started by 'midsummer'
On April 12, experts from the CDC and White House staff met with industry leaders and executives to discuss the conditional sailing order and cruising's return, Caitlin Shockey, spokesperson for the CDC, told USA TODAY.
"Cruising will always pose some risk of COVID-19 transmission, and COVID-19 vaccines will play a critical role in the safe resumption of passenger operations," Shockey said.
Currently, it's up to the cruise lines whether vaccines will be required to board. Some cruise companies, including Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. and Virgin Voyages, have announced fleetwide vaccine requirements. And others, including Royal Caribbean, have announced vaccine requirements for certain vessels.
"Cruise travelers represent a global population, and as more people are fully vaccinated worldwide, the phased approach of the CSO (conditional sailing order) also allows CDC to incorporate these advancements into planning for the safe resumption of cruise ship travel," Shockey added.
The CDC reiterated that it is committed to working with the cruise industry and its seaport partners to start sailing in accordance with the conditional sailing order.
Senior leadership of the CDC and Department of Homeland Security plan to meet with cruise industry leaders starting this week.
"The objective of the meetings are to mutually review the top priority issues of the cruise industry to work out implementation details of the CSO, including the impact of vaccines and other scientific developments since the CSO was issued in October 2020," Shockey said. "This goal aligns with the desire for the resumption of passenger operations in the United States by midsummer, expressed by many major cruise ship operators and travelers."
Cruisers' willingness to head abroad to cruise varies
Whether or not Americans are ready to get on board ships elsewhere is another question.
"What we know is that cruisers love to cruise, and they will go where the cruise ships are," Craighead said.
But some cruisers in the Solo Cruisers USA Facebook group were adamant that they would not be willing to venture outside the country for a cruise.
"Absolutely not," Geoff Kleinman replied to USA TODAY's question in the group about whether cruisers would be willing to travel abroad to take a cruise right now. "This pandemic is a global thing, and I'll be back on board when it's safe to depart from U.S. waters."
Doris Alday-Hepp echoed Kleinman's disinterest but wasn't completely opposed.
"I would if I had to but don’t want to," Alday-Hepp wrote. "If ships don’t start cruising this year, I will go abroad next year."
Others were more willing. Julie Buckley wrote that she would "1000x yes" be willing to cruise elsewhere if it's not an option to depart from U.S. ports.
And some would be willing to cruise from certain locations outside of the U.S..
"I prefer U.S. ports but if I can’t get on a cruise in the US I would go into the Mediterranean or Caribbean or somewhere else," Louise Bigbie said. "I would prefer not to."
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How is cruising going abroad?
In Europe alone, CLIA ocean-going cruise line members have carried out 270 cruise itineraries on 21 cruise ships since the onset of the pandemic, Bari Golin-Blaugrund, senior vice president of strategic communications and public affairs for CLIA, told USA TODAY.
On those ships, more than 154,000 passengers have sailed, and there have been 43 total confirmed cases of COVID-19, and many of those sailings happened before the distribution of vaccines.
"European countries that are currently operating cruise itineraries in a limited and highly-controlled fashion remain closed to American tourists at this time," Golin-Blaugrund said. "We are optimistic that as circumstances continue to improve in many parts of the world, travel restrictions will begin to ease, including as it relates to cruise travel."