“We opened at 5 am and the bookings were coming in fast and furious,” says Royal Caribbean Group chairman and CEO Richard Fain, referring to the response to the vaccine-required cruises that Royal Caribbean and Celebrity are offering from Bermuda, St. Maarten and the Bahamas in June and July.
In short, Royal Caribbean isn’t waiting for those free test cruises it was promising customers, in order to meet the CDC protocols for reopening (though see below for more on that). This summer, travel advisors and their customers seem happy to get a vaccine and wear a mask—and pay their own way while they do it.
In fact, that’s not the only erroneous assumption Royal Caribbean made in the early days of restoring cruises, Fain noted. “We assumed only experienced cruisers would go—and that simply isn’t true at all. In Singapore, 80% of cruisers have been first-timers, and in Germany, the Canary Islands and Greece, the number [of first-timers] is at or above where it was pre-pandemic.”
Speaking on RCCL SVP Vicki Freed’s weekly online Coffee Talk for travel advisors on March 25, Fain said that of the 100,000 cruisers who have sailed on Royal Caribbean Group ships since the pandemic started, only 10 have tested positive—“all handled smoothly without ruining anyone’s vacation, and with protection of guests from spread.” The cruise industry as a whole has carried 350,000 passengers with “minimal disruption” since the pandemic began, he said. But now the vaccines, combined with enhanced testing and contact tracing, “have resulted in a dramatic change in the landscape: being safer than your home community.”
Sailing the Caribbean
With the CDC refusing to budge on its Do Not Sail order for US ports, RCCL and its sister, Celebrity Cruises, announced in March they will move departures to more hospitable climes for the summer, RCCL in the Bahamas and Bermuda, and Celebrity in St. Maarten. For now, Fain said, vaccines will be required for crew and for guests over 18, and tests will be required for children.
The CDC’s Conditional Sail Order, devised in October 2020, calls for a four-phase process for resuming sailing—”but five months into that, we are still on Phase 1 and still don’t know what is required for Phase 2, so that’s pretty unworkable,” Fain said. “We think the science has moved ahead of the Conditional Sail Order and it is now out of date. And we, and the Healthy Sail Panel, feel the time is right to move on in light of the dramatic changes we’ve seen in vaccines, testing, and contact tracing,” which allows RCCL to quickly identify everybody with whom a passenger has come in contact. In October, “extensive protocols made good sense. But today, a vaccine approach makes much more sense… We think the time has come now to acknowledge the change in medical science and move forward.”
Fain said there has not been a decision about how long Royal Caribbean’s vaccine mandate will be in effect, or whether it will become mandatory on other ships as well. The goal is “to make cruising safer than walking down Main Street USA… We are starting this way, but it could change tomorrow. We don’t know how long it will be a feature.”
Travel Advisors Still Divided
For travel advisors, the Caribbean sailings offer a new product to sell, and many are thrilled. Vicki Freed says that high-end suites are selling out quickly, to return guests as well as to new-to-cruise and new-to-Royal-Caribbean, to families as well as couples and even singles—and to travel advisors, too.
Indeed, Bernice Bakley of Huntley Travel in Huntley, IL, is sailing with “several agency friends” on Celebrity Millennium on August 21 to check it out herself. Beci Mahnken of MEI Travel is taking a group of customers along with her on Adventure of the Seas on June 12, 2021. The group “came together organically. Many are excited to get back to the cruise experience and word of mouth turned into a group of people sailing together on this, and other dates, that have been announced from the Caribbean ports and Bermuda as well,” she says. While some of her customers have concerns regarding whether they will be vaccinated in time, wearing a mask, and the testing process, “these issues do not seem to be a deterrent for those who ultimately booked the June dates. The unknowns will actually make for a unique experience for many veteran cruisers. What’s it like to sail on a ship at reduced capacity? How will shore excursions operate? How will they implement protocols to ensure the health and safety of the guests and crew, and still meet expectations? All of these factors make these sailings unique and many are looking forward to being the first to participate.”
Valerie Gossett, of Premier Resources Travel Group in Georgia, stayed up until 2:00am and then got up again at 6:30am to make sure her clients got the suite they wanted. “Half my clients are retirees and they are cruisers,” she says. “I’ve been sending them to all-inclusives, but they miss cruising; so, when this broke, I immediately got it out in my newsletter. My die-hards responded immediately, saying they don’t care what the cost is, they want to cruise again.”
Gossett has 10 couples booked on Celebrity: some on June 26, one on July 3, and quite a few in August, “because they like the itinerary,” which includes St. Maarten and Aruba. One might say her travelers are sailing down, but spending up. They usually book Regent or Oceania, and indeed, none has ever sailed Celebrity before. And they are going for the $7,500 Sky Suites.
“I’m finding that across the board,” Gossett says. “People who have not traveled much, or not at all, during the pandemic are willing to spend more right now on a nicer cabin, a bigger cabin. They’ve seen friends pass away, and they truly just want that luxury experience.”
Amy Madson, owner of Dream Vacations – Madson & Associates in Orlando, also sold a Celebrity Sky Suite. After having five Royal Caribbean cruises cancel, her clients “decided to splurge.”
The vaccine requirement, meanwhile, is not an issue for Gossett’s customers, most of of whom are already vaccinated, she says. “If they test positive, they get a full refund and they are all getting insurance. I tell horror stories of other agents’ clients who haven’t gotten insurance and then I go into the cost of being quarantined, and they all take the insurance. My clients were ready, they handed over the credit card, they had very few questions. It went very smoothly. The one thing I want to stress for other travel advisors is to stay in front of your clients and talk about travel, because when they are ready they will come back to you.”
Still, the willingness to be vaccinated and masked on a cruise ship is still often a matter of geography.
“We are seeing tons of excitement from our clients,” says Crystal Nash Seaton, owner of Road To Relaxation Travel LLC in Colorado. “People are happy to be sailing in a vaccinated bubble. Most of our clients use passports to cruise and fly to cruise ports already so this isn’t a huge change. This is a great first step to resuming Caribbean cruising.”
But in Texas, Steve Rice at The Cruise Butler reports “no interest at all, since there are so many limitations on the fully vaccinated, the need for additional cost of airfare to fly to the Bahamas, and the added expense of needing a passport. Plus, getting vaccines in Texas is a slow process.”
In Pembroke Pines, Florida, “many are happy to see the ships in the water, but saddened by the extra costs of flights,” says Dream Vacations franchisee Angie Gonzalez. “I’m hoping for the Florida ports to reopen.”
And Michele Bridges, of Bridges & Holman Worldwide Travel, credits Royal Caribbean with inspiring cruisers to book not just on its Caribbean cruises, but on all ships: “Royal releasing summer sailings has created a boom in our cruise business for other lines as well. Everyone is gambling on the fact that, if Royal is hitting the water, others will soon follow.”
Breaking News and Details from Vicki Freed
Overall, says Freed, “the response has been very good,” thanks in part to the inclusion of Perfect Day in CocoCay, Royal Caribbean’s private island and #1-rated port of call, in every one of these itineraries. Indeed, that’s the reason these ports were chosen, she says: “we’re able to control the environment, everyone will be vaccinated, and it’s really a ‘wow’ experience. And the Bahamas and Bermuda have been severely hurt by the lack of tourism, and said they would do whatever it takes to ensure the safety of the guests, the crew, and their residents.”
As far as airfare, she says, Royal Caribbean blocked seats in advance of announcing the sailings and is subsidizing the fares; “we wanted to make sure we were being true to our core values and offering a great value at a very fair price, so we looked at what a package with air cost in 2018 and 2019 and made sure we were not overpriced—and this year the price will include more safety and less occupancy.”
Are other destinations on the horizon? “Of course, we are talking to lots of different places and, of course, we’d like to be back in the United States,” she says. “We believe we are ready.”
For those who signed up for the free test cruises, keep in mind that, while guests are paying for the Caribbean sailings, the CDC’s Conditional Sail Order does mandate free test cruises before sailing out of US ports (though there are a quarter of a million volunteers on line with you).
For now, the Caribbean cruises will require that customers test in advance, then do a rapid test at the pier, and then have a third test (paid for by Royal Caribbean) onboard before returning home. Everyone will be encouraged to upload vaccination information to an app in advance of departure, and paper copies will be checked at the pier.
Guests who become ill onboard will be moved to private quarters of their own; those who test positive on the final test onboard will be put up in a hotel at Royal Caribbean’s expense.
But, of course, the protocols may change by May 30, Freed notes.
Meanwhile, those still waiting to hear about the $40 million in business loans RCCL had promised travel advisors should get good news in the next few days.
“It’s been unbelievably painful to see the suffering Covid has caused so many people, and particularly in small businesses and travel advisors,” Fain said last week. “The frustration is, as it turns out, that there are so many regulations dealing with lending that it’s hard to lend money. We just wanted to put this money in the hands of people who needed it, and it turns out you have to be licensed and meet certain requirements. So we tried to find a bank to act as an intermediary, but it’s proving to be very difficult.”
Still, he said, “I think we are just about at the finish line, and I look forward to having this one small lifeline.”
On Tuesday, Freed said she is hoping that everything will be settled in the next few days and that travel advisors will begin to receive checks in the next couple of weeks.
In the meantime, everyone can play a role in helping the industry come back. Said Fain, “Don’t get complacent—masks work. Get your vaccine and follow the CDC advice, and we can be sailing in time for the Fourth of July.”
Update 4/6: Norwegian Cruise Lines today announced its return to sailing, in the Caribbean and Greece, beginning in August (hopefully after its return to US ports in July). NCL will sail out of Jamaica and the Dominican Republic—and unlike Royal Caribbean, will mandate vaccines for all guests, with no exception for children.
NCL Chief Sales Officer Katina Athanasiou told TRO today that they chose Jamaica and the DR because they are the top two Caribbean destinations for US travelers and also offer access to Harvest Cay. “We didn’t want to just start up cruising, we wanted to start up the best vacation,” she said. “We are dedicated to making sure our itineraries are carefully curated to provide immersive experiences on land. And we knew that’s where guests wanted to go.”
As far as the vaccine mandate, Athanasiou said, as of today Norwegian believes “the safest way to start is with 100% vaccination of our crew and guests”—but it is “not the case at all that that will be in perpetuity.” But Phase One of Norwegian’s multi-phased approach to resuming service, which runs through October 31, includes mandatory vaccines.
NCL also today announced updated refund and commission policies. It promised full refunds to any guest not vaccinated by October 31, even if they are traveling on a Future Cruise Credit, and to any guest whose cruise has been canceled twice. And it rewarded its loyal travel advisor partners by offering full commissions immediately on all fully paid bookings, including those into 2023.
Cheryl’s 40-year career in journalism is bookended by roles in the travel industry, including Executive Editor of Business Travel News in the 1990s, and recently, Editor in Chief of Travel Market Report and admin of Cheryl Rosen’s Group for Travel Professionals, a news and support group on Facebook.
As an independent contractor since retiring from the 9-to-5 to travel more, she has written regular articles about the life and business of travel agents for Luxury Travel Advisor, Travel Agent and Insider Travel Report. She also writes and edits for professional publications in the financial services, business and technology sectors.