Cruise Lines Continue to Push Back Return-to-Sail Dates

Another day, another cruise cancellation. In what may feel like a case of deja vu, the cruise industry is in the midst of another round of pushbacks on the return to sailing.

Starting in late December, Norwegian Cruise Line cancelled its initial voyages aboard Encore, Escape, and Joy. These ships were tentatively scheduled to return to sailing in March, following the CDC’s framework to get back to sailing. Norwegian pushed the return until at least April.

Now this morning Carnival announced that it is pushing its cancellations from the end of February through the end of March. This includes all sailings from U.S. ports through March 31.

“We are sorry to disappoint our guests, as we can see from our booking activity that there is clearly a pent-up demand for cruising on Carnival. We appreciate their patience and support as we continue to work on our plans to resume operations in 2021 with a gradual, phased in approach,” said Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line.

While there has been no word yet from Royal Caribbean, it wouldn’t surprise us to see that cruise line to also push back its return date, which is currently slated for March.

Further Suspensions Were Anticipated

As we covered just before the Norwegian cancellation, these further suspensions were something that we anticipated.

With the new CDC framework, cruise lines must meet a number of requirements before they are permitted to sail again from the United States. This includes universal testing of passengers and crew, simulated voyages, and applying for a “Conditional Sailing Certificate,” issued by the CDC.

Cruise lines don’t have any sort of hard deadlines they must meet to return. Instead, their return is based on when the cruise line satisfied the CDC’s requirement and when the agency agrees to let them sail again based on public health considerations.

While we’re not privy to any back and forth between the cruise lines and the health agency regarding the return, there are some timing intervals laid out in the framework that give us an idea of a timeline.

For instance, cruise lines must sail simulated voyages and give the CDC at least 30 days notice before sailing one of these trips. And when applying for a certificate to sail with passengers, (which can only happen after the simulated voyage), the cruise line is required to do so at least 60 days before the anticipated sail date.

In other words, if a cruise line wanted to return by March 1, they would have needed to have completed the simulated voyage and applied for a Conditional Sailing Certificate by at least December 31, 2020 (60 days prior).

To date, we know of no cruise line that has even scheduled a simulated voyage — much less completed one and applied to sail again. That implies it will still be some time before sailing resumes.

No Sailing Until Widespread Vaccine Availability?

It is encouraging that the industry now has clearer guidelines of what it will take to return to sailing. Unfortunately, the pandemic is also at its peak in the United States, with more than 200,000 new cases on average each day.

It’s hard to imagine that given the strong language the CDC has used regarding cruising (their current advisory says the public should avoid travel on cruise ships), the agency would give the green light to sail soon.

But there is a wild card in the return of cruises — the vaccine. As we explained here, there are a number of reasons to think that cruises might not sail again until the vaccine is widely available to Americans. This includes new leadership in Washington that seems more focused on the pandemic. 

Waiting for more vaccines to be distributed would reduce the risk of an outbreak on the ship and help to better protect passengers. With this latest round of cancellations, the dates between widespread vaccine availability and when cruises anticipate return continue to move toward each other.

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