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Cruises get a path to resume in U.S. ‘as soon as possible’ based on vaccinations

Royal Caribbean cruise ship Empress of the Seas in 2016.
The cruise industry essentially has been banned from operating via U.S. ports since March 2020.
(Lynne Sladky / Associated Press)

Cruise companies expressed relief and optimism after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlined a new path to the resumption of voyages.

According to the new guidance in a letter sent to companies Wednesday, ships can sail from U.S. ports with paying customers if 95% of guests and 98% of crew are vaccinated, bypassing a previous requirement for starting with trial voyages. In a response provided to Bloomberg News, the agency said it wants to resume U.S. sailings “as soon as possible to maintain the timeline of passenger voyages by mid-July.”

On Thursday, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. discussed the letter in its quarterly business update, saying the message had addressed some of the company’s “uncertainties and concerns.” Royal Caribbean said it now sees a pathway to sailing from the U.S. again, including for the Alaska cruise season, which runs until September. The letter from the CDC was previously reported by USA Today.

The cruise industry has been essentially banned from operating via U.S. ports since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. The companies recently have ramped up lobbying efforts to win approval for a return, arguing in part that the industry was unfairly singled out for the strictest treatment even as other tourism businesses have returned in some fashion.

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Americans have more time to get the Real ID that will be required for boarding flights and entering federal facilities.

Technically, the CDC lifted its hard ban on cruises in October, but it replaced it with a checklist for restarting cruises that no operator has yet managed to complete. The industry had previously criticized the conditional sailing order as overly burdensome and out of touch with the new reality since the start of COVID-19 inoculations. Florida, where the major cruise companies are based, sued the federal government to hasten the return of cruise sailings.

Royal Caribbean said the recent discussions with the CDC have turned more productive.

“They have dealt with many of these items in a constructive manner that takes into account recent advances in vaccines and medical science,” Royal Caribbean Chief Executive Richard Fain said Thursday during the company’s first-quarter business update.

The company reported revenue totaling $42 million, which was slightly better than analysts tracked by Bloomberg had expected.

The State Department is urging Americans not to travel to most places overseas because of the risks from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Royal Caribbean said it has started to spend slightly more cash to cover expenses related to restarting the fleet. It also noted that cumulative advanced bookings for the first half of 2022 are “within historical ranges and at higher prices” than its 2019 pre-pandemic baseline.

Jason Liberty, chief financial officer of Royal Caribbean, said the company already had planned to operate at about 19% of its typical capacity, with sailings originating from Singapore, Europe and several Caribbean nations. The new rules could enable it to bring more than half its capacity online by the end of the summer.

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“Our goal is get the majority of our fleet back up and running by the end of the year so that 2022 looks like a normal period,” he said in an interview Thursday.

The Miami-based company is working with federal authorities and the Canadian government to allow Alaskan sailings. Federal law requires that cruise ships, which are typically registered in other nations, stop in a foreign port before returning to the U.S., and Canada isn’t allowing such arrivals.

Royal Caribbean said that it has carried more than 125,000 guests since cruises resumed overseas and that only 21 have tested positive for COVID-19.

Royal Caribbean’s shares rose as much as 5.7% on Thursday, then lost all that ground and more, closing down 2.9%. Other cruise company stocks also surged and then retreated. Carnival Corp., the industry market-share leader, ended down 2.1%, and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. ended with a gain of 0.3%.

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