You’d be forgiven if you didn’t know how far out cruises are cancelled. Over the past year, it’s been a whirlwind of suspensions, with extensions happening seemingly every month since the CDC put in a new framework to return to sailing back in October 2020.
In the latest round of suspensions, the major cruise lines have pushed out their return dates through at least May, meaning a potential to begin sailing again in June in the United States. This includes Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Lines. Some lines, including Virgin Voyages, have pushed their dates out until later.
This isn’t to say that all cruise lines or all cruise ships will get back to sailing right as trips return. The cruise companies have made it clear that any sort of return will be a staggered approach — a few ships returning as cruise lines ramp up sailings over the course of months.
But with cruises now voluntarily halted until at least June, could that actually be when they return to sailing? Or are more suspensions on the horizon?
Reasons to Be Optimistic About a Return
To be sure, there is no one that knows for sure when cruises will return again. As cruise line executives have repeated time and again, their return depends on the virus. On that front, there are reasons for optimism.
Fewer COVID Cases
If cruise lines say that public health and the virus spread are the factors with the greatest influence on their return, then at least right now, a June return looks possible.
Cases of the virus have seemingly fallen off a cliff in the United States. In early January the average daily number of new cases peaked above 250,000. Today, it is around 70,000 — or roughly 70-75% lower — and potentially dropping more.
Even so, that is still higher than what was seen during the peaks of earlier waves in March and July 2020. In other words, cases are trending in the right direction for a return to cruising, but they are still high.
Still, if cases continue to drop, we could soon be at lower levels of cases than at any time since the pandemic began.
“Today I would tell you that we are in a better place, a more encouraging place than we were even just six weeks ago,” Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. CEO Frank Del Rio said during a recent investor call. “At the end of the day, I think the prevalence of the disease, in our own country and around the world, will be the greatest indicator of when we can resume cruising. And the prevalence is dropping.”
We’ve gone on record as saying we believe cruises won’t return until a vaccine is widely and easily available. And on that front, despite a rough start, the vaccine rollout is ramping up.
At the time of this writing, more than 75 million doses have been administered in the United States. There are now more than 2 million doses given each day, and a new single-shot vaccine was just approved.
While the overall percentage of people completely vaccinated is still low, it looks to grow in leaps and bounds in the coming weeks and months. The Biden Administration just announced that by the end of May there will be enough vaccine doses for every American adult. That can make a considerable impact on the landscape.
In fact, Royal Caribbean Group CEO has gone so far as to call the vaccine “the ultimate weapon.”
Whether vaccines will be required of passengers has yet to be seen. Some small cruise lines have said everyone on the ship will have to be vaccinated, but major cruise lines haven’t made a decision just yet. Royal Caribbean did announce it will have “fully vaccinated” cruises sailing from Israel in May.
Optimism From Cruise Lines
The CDC will make the decision on when cruise lines will sail. For the most part they have been tight-lipped about what the future holds. That said, in general, they have been critical of the risk that cruise ships pose in spreading the virus.
In fact, there is currently a warning against cruise travel on the CDC website.
At the same time, cruise line executives are in regular contact with CDC officials. And what they’ve said recently shows plenty of optimism.
Royal Caribbean President Michael Bayley recently spoke of the CDC, saying “As they’ve explained to us on many occasions, this is really about what’s happening with the virus. They’ve assured us on several occasions that when these indicators really start to move in a very positive way, they will start working with us to get us back into operation.”
Hurdles to a June Return
If you are a cruise fan, there are plenty of reasons to point at a June return date, but there are still potential hurdles that could derail a return in June.
With the return to sailing, the CDC issued a framework that lays out the steps required for ships to cruise with paying passengers. There is no set date laid out for return. Instead, there are timelines built into some steps.
For instance, before a cruise line can sail a required “simulated voyage” to test the new health protocols, it must give the CDC 30 days notice. So far no cruise line we’ve seen has announced a simulated voyage.
Another step is that cruise lines must apply and receive a “Conditional Sailing Certificate” before they can resume with paying passengers. According to the framework, this step should be taken after a successful simulated voyage and must be applied for at least 60 days before the anticipated departure date.
In other words, the CDC framework builds in at least a 90-day window from the time that a simulated voyage is requested and when a ship actually begins sailing, assuming the requirements have no flexibility. Ninety days from now is already early June.
Time to Get the Ship Ready
Even if cruises were given the green light tomorrow, it would still take time to make them ready for sailing. Ships have operated with skeleton crews for months as they lay up to reduce costs while no passengers sail.
Once cruises are ready to resume, things like staffing and any deferred maintenance must be completed, as well as any changes not already made to the vessel to get it ready to sail with new protocols.
Norwegian’s Frank Del Rio has said that his company aims for about 90 days to get a ship up and running.
Variants & Refusing the Vaccine
Finally, while cases have fallen, that decline has at least temporarily flattened out for a few days. It has yet to be seen if numbers will continue to decline, although there is hope given the rollout of vaccines.
More worrying is the recent news regarding variants. These variants can spread more easily and also be more resistant to vaccines. The strains, including some from the U.K, Brazil, and South Africa have made headlines for weeks.
There are worries that fast-spreading variants could lead to an increase in cases before vaccines can be widely distributed.
Another issue is how many people will get the vaccine? If a large portion of the population decides against it, then it’s possible that cases will continue to be stubbornly high for the foreseeable future. Already, about 30% of Americans say they won’t get a COVID shot.
Will Cruises Return in June?
So will cruises finally return in June, putting an end to the more than year-long suspension in cruises?
To be fair, no one knows for sure. We feel confident that cruises will set sail in 2021 given the lower cases and rollout of the vaccine.
What’s yet to be seen, however, is if June is enough time for the vaccine to be distributed and significantly knock down the number and severity of cases. And even if it were enough time to have vaccines widely working, there are still the logistical challenges of meeting the CDC’s framework and readying ships for sailing.
In our opinion, with roughly 90 days until the start of June, it seems challenging to have cruises resume in that timeframe. That said, it’s not impossible if there is some flexibility from the CDC timeline covered in the framework.
From the public comments made by cruise lines, it certainly appears that if the current trends continue, we will all be back sailing soon. But in our opinion, a return in July or August seems more likely based on what we’ve seen.
That would allow just slightly more time for vaccines to work to reduce cases, and also allow time for cruise lines work through the CDC framework and ready ships.
All of that depends, however, on the virus. The hope is that we are now in the closing innings of COVID being a major health threat, allowing us all to get back to normal.