Right now, all the major cruise lines — including Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian — have suspended cruises through February 2021. And while there are tentative plans to begin sailing in early March in a limited capacity, there is a strong reason to think that those return dates could be extended yet again.
Update: Since publishing this story, Norwegian Cruise Line has in fact cancelled its sailings set to return in March.
The reason? The plan put in place by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for a return to cruising lays out specific timeframes that haven’t been yet met if ships want to sail again at the beginning of March.
The Pause in Cruising by the CDC
Back in March 2020, cruises were halted in the face of a worsening pandemic. At that time, no one had any idea that the suspension would last for nearly a year. In fact, the initial voluntary suspension put in place by Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) — an industry trade group — was for only 30 days.
On top of that voluntary suspension was a “No Sail Order” put in place by the Centers for Disease Control. Beyond the initial announcement, the order was renewed several times, stopping ships from sailing from the United States for months on end. The voluntary order put in place by CLIA was also extended multiple times.
But in late October, the CDC offered a ray of light for the industry. On October 30, 2020, the agency lifted the “No Sail Order” and replaced it with a “Framework for Conditional Sailing Order.”
This plan laid out specific, actionable steps that cruise lines need to take to return to sailing. It includes testing of crew members, simulated voyages, and applying for a “Conditional Sailing Certificate” to carry passengers again.
Specific Lead Times Laid Out by the Government
The great thing about this change from the CDC is that it lays out a clear path to return to sailing. Within the 40-page order is a laundry list of what needs to happen before cruises can sail from the United States again. After months and months of uncertainty, the cruise lines and the public finally have a better idea of what it will take to return to sailing.
Within this order there is no set timetable to return. Instead, the return is simply at the pace that the cruise lines can implement the new policies required and the CDC is comfortable in approving them to sail again.
But there are dates by which a cruise line must give the CDC notice on some items. For instance, before a simulated voyage can occur, the CDC says cruise lines must give written notice.
“This written notice should be submitted at least 30 calendar days prior to the date on which the cruise ship operator proposes to conduct the simulation,” says the framework provided by the agency.
So for instance, if a cruise line wanted to sail a simulated voyage on January 31, then it needs to notify the CDC by January 1.
Another step in the return process is applying for and receiving a “Conditional Sailing Certificate.” This certificate can only be applied for after a cruise line successfully completes a simulated voyage. For this application, the cruise line must submit a number of items for review by the CDC.
“These materials should be submitted at least 60 calendar days prior to the date on which the cruise ship operator proposes to commence restricted passenger operations,” according to the CDC framework.
Therefore, if the cruise line wants to sail on March 1, 2021 (when some cruises are currently scheduled), then it needs to submit the application to the CDC by December 31, 2020 and have also completed the simulated voyage.
No Known Simulated Voyages Sailed Yet
As of now, we have yet to hear any announcements of simulated voyage dates from major cruise lines.
For instance, Royal Caribbean has created a Facebook group for volunteer passengers interested in the voyages called Volunteers of the Seas. The latest announcement in an update from mid-November said “As a reminder, we have not sent e-mails and have not called to share additional information or to confirm guests on sailings as of this time.”
And when we recently reached out to Norwegian Cruise Lines last week, they said “We are assessing the requirements of test cruises and determining our approach. We will share information as we have it.”
It is possible cruise lines have notified the CDC of plans for simulated voyages, but simply haven’t made an announcement public yet. Even so, given that the lines are required to complete the simulated cruise before applying for a certificate to sail with paying passengers, the timeline is getting tight to be able to sail at the start of March.
After all, if the CDC sticks to their requirements, then an application to sail with paying passengers needs to be submitted by December 31 for a March 1, 2021 sail date. And before that can be done, the cruise line will need to complete a simulated voyage.
Given that timeline, it seems likely that cruises won’t sail again by the beginning of March.
That said, with the CDC framework and an effective vaccine rolling out, it’s clear that there is a light at the end of this tunnel to return to cruising.