“Big Four” Cruise Execs Talk Industry, Restart and More

Image of Cruise Ships Docked in Port of San Diego Due to Coronavirus
Cruise ships are shown above docked at the Port of San Diego. When cruise operations are given a "green light" by the CDC to operate from U.S. ports once again, cruise executives says it would take 30 days or so before any ship would sail. (Courtesy of Port of San Diego)

When will cruising "restart" from U.S. ports and what's required to make that happen? Top cruise executives from the world's four biggest cruise companies—Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean Group,  Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and MSC Cruises Ltd.—offer their insight.  

The executives briefed reporters after Cruise Lines International Association's (CLIA) global board of directors approved mandatory health/safety protocols for member lines—and submitted them to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It's hoped this could provide a path to lifting of the CDC's "No Sail Order" and the resumption of cruising from U.S. ports. 

A Path to Cruise Resumption

"This probably has been the most difficult period in our industry's 50-year history and it certainly has been for our company," said Arnold Donald, president and CEO, Carnival Corporation, citing "hundreds of thousands" of employees of CLIA's member companies who are out of work and not being paid. He also pointed to the "hundreds of thousands, if not millions more, who are dependent on our industry for their livelihood."

Donald said no other industry in the world has been completely shut down through regulatory edict during this pandemic. The CDC's "No Sail Order" and bans from some other foreign destinations/governments have done just that. He stressed that "perhaps no other industry in the world has worked harder to study the science and create operational protocols to ensure the safety of their guests and employees." 

The good news? "We are on a path—in collaboration with and in approval with regulators and destinations—to resume guest cruise operations in the U.S.," said Donald. Paramount is protecting health, safety and wellbeing of guests, crew, shoreside employees and people in the places/communities that cruise ships visit, a commitment reflected in the protocols submitted by CLIA to the CDC. 

Costa Cruises restarted operations earlier this month in Italy. Donald said important "learnings and best practices" from that experience are being shared with other Carnival brands and other cruise companies through CLIA. Next to restart on October 17 is Carnival's German brand, AIDA. Initially, it will weekly on an itinerary to multiple Italian ports. In November, it will sail to the Canary Islands, and by December, two ships will sail in the western Mediterranean and to the United Arab Emirates. 

Donald said many of the restart protocols will change "as we learn more and as COVID-19, hopefully, becomes more managed in our population, and as our guests become more comfortable moving about society once again." He emphasized that all those factors including testing methods, society's tolerance for risk, therapeutics and more creates "a constantly moving target."

One takeaway is that "we have restarted in Europe, because the combination of all those things make it possible," Donald emphasized. "In every case, including the U.S., we will constantly assess these key factors to determine restart," what he called "our best understanding of the total picture."

Collaboration not Competition 

Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Group, said, "It's really good to have CLIA and the leaders of the industry working together" and "to reemphasize our commitment to make sure that we’re getting it right." 

He also spoke about the work of the Healthy Sail Panel, which released its recommendations to the CDC on Monday; that group was formed in a collaborative effort by Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings. The open source findings were shared with any interested cruise lines, travel companies and other businesses, along with governments and agencies.

CLIA observers, for example, listened to the discussions by medical, scientific, hospitality and maritime experts on that Healthy Sail Panel. Fain says that panel's work and other collaborative efforts have created "a transparent way to support a pathway for resumption of cruising from U.S. ports." He noted that RCL said it wouldn't start operating until experts felt it was safe, so "it's really encouraging that the Healthy Sail Panel and CLIA’s other members’ panels and experts have defined a way for resumption of service."

Also, Fain said a "big factor" was the success with some lines' early sailings, particularly in Europe. "We all share the same goal and we’re going to get their through collaboration not through competition." 

Fain and others cited the changing picture day-to-day, as the world learns more about the virus/disease and how to deal with it including the technology involved (testing, therapies and so forth), which is dramatically improving month by month. 

"We said we wouldn’t start until we were ready but we think that the science has advanced and the technology has advanced to a point where we can safely proceed forward with our objective of giving the best experiences in the world in a very safe and controlled environment," Fain said. 

Resuming Cruising is Personal

Frank Del Rio, president and CEO, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, was blunt in his assessment: "Resumption of worldwide service, and in particular in the United States, is the single most important challenge that the cruise industry has ever faced."

But he added: "This challenge is very personal to me. When I think about resuming cruise operations, I think about my elderly mother and of my young grandchildren being onboard and making sure that all the necessary protocols and arrangements are in place to keep them safe and to mitigate any risk, while still delivering a great cruise vacation and experience." 

He also thinks about the tens of thousands of people globally whose livelihood depends on a viable cruise industry and how their lives have been upended in 2020, as well as the 30-plus-million people who would have cruised this year and "how disappointed they must be." 

Still, "confidence in health and safety is what matters to my family," he emphasized. "It’s what matters to all families everywhere." Del Rio, though, called the CLIA core elements in the material submitted to the CDC "one of the strongest, if not 'the strongest' health protocols of any industry." 

Looking forward to continued collaboration, continued learning and a favorable outcome from authorities in the very near future, Del Rio said: "And boy, do we look forward to resuming cruising."

Not Just Europe

Exterior view of the MSC Grandiosa Exterior Editorial

MSC Grandiosa

Pierfrancesco Vago, chairman of MSC Cruises Ltd., told reporters that Monday's approval by CLIA's global board for the new safety/health protocols submitted to the CDC, "is clearly an important moment for the cruise industry globally," not simply in Europe.

That said, MSC has something most other lines don't—pandemic-era cruising experience in Europe. We are back at sea," Vago said, noting that, regardless of region, successful sailings depends on the help of passengers, crews and especially the communities visited with health/safety as the top priority.

"I think we demonstrated this and that it’s possible to achieve this when our own flagship, MSC Grandiosa, returned to sea over five weeks ago," emphasized Vago, who had just disembarked from that ship this week. "I can assure you that not only is it safe but our guests are happy," he said, adding that they feel safe as they can see that the protocol is working.

That protocol was developed by MSC with input from medical, scientific and other experts on its "Blue Ribbon" panel, along with other sources. Protocols aside, Vago says it's also critical to have "engagement" with the communities visited and national, regional and local leaders of those, not just in maritime circles, but with officials in transport and safety too.

He personally headed out to inform leaders what was planned, answer questions and make them feel comfortable. "It was an incredible job," Vago said. "I did it in Italy, I did it in Malta, I did it in Greece," the countries where MSC is now operating. In addition, Vago said he's also visited contacts in Spain, France, Belgium (Brussels, from which the EU operates) and northern European countries.

Vago says MSC is eager to return to North America and the Caribbean, "now that we believe, and especially now that we demonstrate that the resumption of cruising can take place in a safe and healthy way.

Phased, Sequential Start-Up

Once the CDC lifts its "No Sail Order" (presumably approving protocols), the lines could start up operations from U.S. ports and visit ports of call that welcome ships.  At that point, "we foresee a phased, sequential start-up of operations," said Adam Goldstein, CLIA's global chair.

He also the industry would also look at the experiences that some cruise brands are having in Europe and make adjustments as needed, based on those experiences and the latest scientific/medical developments.  But, "you can see the foundation for our optimism, that even in the face of a really challenging pandemic, we are confident we can operate ships successfully and deliver a fantastic vacations," Goldstein said. 

Lead Time Needed?

But how soon will passengers be "back on the water" in sailing from U.S. ports? Brian Salerno, CLIA's senior vice president of maritime policy, says the CDC "Request for Information" (RFI) period for public comments ended this week. So, the agency still must review all those comments and materials. 

"The ray of hope in this for us is that by asking for what will it take for us to resume, the CDC is thinking about putting together some set of requirements that would enable that to happen," said Salerno. "We did as much possible to give them a firm commitment to the kinds of things we would do in the hope of accelerating that process."

Salerno continued: "We don’t have a specific time frame from CDC when that will be allowed. Obviously we’d like to be able to salvage something of the 2020 season. We know it’s a laborious process to go through 3,500 comments that they’ve received in the response to their request."

But he said, the CLIA submission and the other industry-level submissions (such as the Healthy Sail Panel recommendations) "would be very informative and hopefully make their jobs a little bit easier."

From a cruise company's perspective, Del Rio said both the "Healthy Sail Panel" recommendations and the CLIA adopted protocols, "will allow us to cruise safely, but we’ve not put a time factor on it."

Underlying all this, Del Rio said is whether people feel it's safe to cruise: "We must develop the confidence among the authorities, among the travel agents, among the guests, the whole cruise ecosystem. So, while we are in a hurry to get back to service—because that is what we do—we don’t want to hurry the process."

Operationally, it does take time to get a ship ready to sail. "We have to bring crew back, we have to train the crew on the new protocols, we have to test that those protocols work," said Del Rio. "That's why we’re talking about a phased approach to return to service." For example, a line may choose to start with only employees onboard for its first cruise, spend only a day or two at sea, and then see how that goes. "We'll recalibrate our procedures and gradually work ourselves up to the point where we are confident that we can have guests onboard and hopefully from there, we’ll have continued success like we’ve seen in Europe.

Also, "we can return to what I’d call more normal operations over time," Del Rio noted. "This will not last forever." Heath and protocols will also evolve, as lines learn more about the disease and they consider new technologies, therapeutics and the impact of any vaccine.

"But first and foremost, we will not cruise until we are confident that we can do so safely," Del Rio said.

There's also "a gap in knowing you'll be able to sail and [operationally] being able to sail," said Kelly Craighead, CLIA's president and CEO, who asked Donald to explain the time needed to gear up for a ship to operate.  

Donald said it will vary, but based on what his company has done in Europe, "it's going to take a good 30 days." With rigorous protocols in place for crew, the cruise line must fly crew members from home—at times across the globe—to the ship. Crew must be rigorously tested, and in some cases isolated or quarantined. 

But once the lines "know we can go" it would take about 30 days he said for a ship to sail. Vago concurred with Donald's assessment, adding that "also for the destination, we need to engage not only locally, but all the ports where we call."

That means demonstrating those core principles to show how the line will operate, and Vago said that for U.S. departures that would mean doing so for "all the destinations in the Caribbean for the places we intend to visit. But I think we are a very efficient industry with lots of good intentions and I think with our professional approach, in 30 days we could be up and running."

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