Months ago, with the CDC publishing a new framework to return to sailing, it seemed like a no-brainer that cruises — while already suspended for months — would definitely be back for 2021. In the past several weeks, however, there have been more questions about that thinking.
First, cruise lines have continued to push back return dates. First it was for the end of 2020, then through March, and now all the major lines have pushed the return until at least May.
Then an investment analyst recently went on record to say that cruises could be paused for all of 2021, and in the best case scenario the return wouldn’t be until July.
“The sentiment for 2021 has now changed to ‘It’s possible 2021 will not be a return to (revenue) sailings in North America, or at least not before’ ” the fourth quarter, Truist Securities analyst Patrick Scholes wrote in a note Friday.
With a slower-than-expected initial rollout of a potentially ground-breaking vaccine, worries about new variants, combined with still-high cases of COVID spread, is it possible that cruises don’t start again until after 2021?
Here’s the latest updates and our opinion.
Current Status of the Pause in Sailing
Let’s start with where things stand now. At best the earliest that major cruise lines will begin sailing based on their own scheduling is in May.
Carnival Corporation, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd., and Royal Caribbean Group have all announced that their self-imposed suspensions that go through April. And at that point, plans are for limited cruises when first starting back.
But just because cruise lines have a voluntary pause in place doesn’t mean they can simply get back to cruising. On top of the pause is the CDC’s “Framework for Conditional Sailing.”
This framework replaced a prior “No Sail Order” that stopped cruises from the possibility of returning. Now the framework instead lays out a path to return to sailing.
Simulated Voyages and Certification to Sail
This path includes several steps and dozens of details, including things like simulated voyages (test cruises with volunteer passengers) and applying for a “Conditional Sailing Certificate” before the ship can take on paying passengers and return to cruising.
One other aspect of the CDC’s framework is that the agency will determine the phases of return based on “public health considerations.” In other words, if cases remain high, then there is no guarantee that cruises the CDC will allow them to sail.
In fact, as of now no cruise line that we’ve seen has announced a simulated voyage. Carnival CEO Arnold Donald recently said his company was waiting on further instruction from the CDC.
In other words, there appears to be a holding pattern for the return.
Factors in the Return to Cruising (Further Delays?)
There are plenty of moving parts when it comes to cruises coming back. Cruise lines have to prepare vessels and go through the CDC framework. The CDC has to give approval. Foreign ports must sign-off on cruise ships visiting. But most importantly, everyone has to feel that cruises can sail safely without passengers falling ill or spreading the virus.
Cases in the United States
Of course no factor is bigger in the return of cruises than the number of COVID cases seen. Thankfully, at this time there is a downturn in the number of cases. From an average daily number of new cases of more than 250,000, the United States has now dipped well below that figure.
Still, cases are higher now than at any time before November 2020. In other words, things are improving, but the pandemic still is not over.
With the virus so widespread, it’s hard to see cruises returning anytime soon. In fact, new cases are about double where they were when the CDC lifted the “No Sail Order” and replaced it with the framework to return.
The good news? The rollout of a vaccine looks to help speed up the fall in the number of cases, which could get cruises back sooner. Unfortunately, worries about variants may cause another hurdle.
Another key component to any cruise return is the CDC and their pathway to returning to sailing. As mentioned above, the basics include several different steps to get back to cruising, including creating a safe environment for crew, completing simulated voyages, and receiving certification from the CDC before sailing again.
What the framework doesn’t have is a concrete timeline. There is no set date as to when cruises can return. The return is set by when the CDC is satisfied that cruise lines have met the requirements and can sail safely. Currently the organization says that “that all people avoid travel on cruise ships, including river cruises, worldwide, because the risk of COVID-19 on cruise ships is very high.”
There are, however, some lead times required. For example, before a cruise line plans to sail a simulated cruise, it must provide 30 days notice to the CDC. And the line must apply for a certificate to sail with passengers at least 60 days before the anticipated sail date.
These time requirements add several months to any potential return.
A New Administration
New leadership in the United States appears to be making the pandemic the top priority. Already travel restrictions are being put in place from some countries to limit the spread of COVID variants, as well as testing for international travelers. Mask-wearing is now commonplace among the President and other high-ranking staff.
It stands to reason that given the focus on battling the health crisis, cruises may be among the last things to return. After all, the CDC pointed to a study done for the Diamond Princess where the reproduction rate of the virus on board was nearly 15, meaning for each person infected, they spread it to almost 15 others before the quarantine was put in place.
And in a handful of cruises that have returned in Europe, there have been cases found despite the new protocols.
So Will Cruises Return in 2021?
At this point there is no way to know exactly when cruises will return. Cruise lines continue to sound hopeful, but make it clear that they are working to get back cruising safely when the time is right.
The best we can do is offer an opinion based on what’s being seen. Above all, the path of the virus will dictate when ships head back to sea.
While cases are high, there is good news. First, at this time new cases are dropping. More importantly is that a vaccine — while having a rocky rollout — is getting distributed. Right now more than one million doses per day are being given in the U.S. Within months it could be that hundreds of millions of people are vaccinated, reducing the impact of the virus.
Of course, being able to finally knock down COVID to manageable levels could drastically transform our daily lives for the better. Of course, that could mean getting more back to normal, including sailing again.
The next several months will give us all a much better idea of what to expect for the rest of the year.
Cruises are already paused for most lines through April. With the 90 days required by the CDC framework (30 days before a simulated voyage and 60 days before sailing when applying for a certificate), it looks likely to us there could be another push in the return dates unless simulated voyages are approved soon.
Even so, we see reasons to be optimistic cruises will sail again in 2021, but it largely depends on the rollout and effectiveness of the vaccine. COVID has shown that it won’t just go away on its own, and it can spread on cruise ships.
But given that potentially hundreds of millions of Americans are set to be vaccinated in the months ahead, there’s the potential for a complete change in the current situation. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, has said that we can approach a degree of normality as we get into fall of 2021.
At this point we are optimistic that a return to cruising will happen in 2021, but it seems more likely not to happen until at least the second-half of the year. As explained in our 2021 Cruise Predictions, we don’t think cruises sail again until a vaccine is widely and easily available.
Let’s just hope the vaccine works and the virus doesn’t have any more curveballs to throw us.