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New study shows "exceptionally low" risk of airborne particles on cruise ships

26 Feb 2021

A recent study has debunked yet another stereotype about cruises, this time about the air circulation onboard.

An independent study conducted by University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) and the National Strategic Research Institute (NSRI) on Oasis of the Seas looked at air flow, and movement of particulate matter indoors.

The study was conducted in July 2020 right in the middle of the global health crisis to evaluate how a cruise ship's HVAC system worked and what risks were posed to guests and crew members.

The study found the risk associated with transmission of airborne particles between spaces, through the HVAC system, is exceptionally low and undetectable both in the air and on surfaces.

How they tested

The team of five medical scientists focused on the effectiveness and efficiency of ship air management strategies – ventilation, filtration and supply – and examined air flow across different areas of the ship, including guest staterooms, crew staterooms, lounges and other public spaces. 

They looked at guest staterooms, the casino, ice rink, comedy club, and crew quarters, and proposed to release billions of microspheres – simulating SARS-CoV-2 aerosols – to be released in separate locations across the ship.

The microspheres used in this study are spherical particles made of a plastic polymer that are coated with unique DNA barcodes so that they can be easily detected.

In this study, no exchange of aerosol particles was observed between spaces only connected by the ventilation system (such as adjacent staterooms, both crew and guest), indicating that the likelihood of aerosol exchange between adjacent rooms is very unlikely

In public spaces, the casino performed the best, since it has built-in filtering for tobacco smoke.  Nonetheless, all venues showed no evidence of aerosol or surface contamination. In general, particles released in the public areas were not observable after 15 minutes, likely due to dilution in the large spaces.

The conclusion was transmission of aerosol particles between spaces, through the ventilation system, to be undetectable on surfaces and in the air. 

Based on their findings, Royal Caribbean has adopted a few changes to add even more protection for anyone onboard.

  • Adjusting shipboard settings to allow for the maximum air changes per hour
    •  Incoming air is filtered twice when it comes into the ship, including through a MERV (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value) 13 filter
    • It then branches out across the ship through the system to be filtered again in local areas, say your stateroom or the theater
  • Upgrading to MERV 13 filters throughout the system
  • Equipped its medical facilities with an independent ventilation system and has added HEPA filters for additional precaution
  • Ocean air is continuously drawn in from one side of the ship for cooling and ventilation as the existing air is exhausted on the opposite side of the ship
    • This constant intake of fresh air, combined with the other robust components of the HVAC system, allows for up to 12 air changes an hour in staterooms and 15-20 changes in public venues
    • This frequency is twice more than what is recommended for land-based public venues by ASHRAE, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. 

The MERV rating of a filter refers to how much it can filter particles in the air, with a higher number meaning a higher level of filtration.  The MERV ratings range between 1 and 20. A MERV rating of 13-16 is considered hospital level air quality.

A team of five medical scientists specializing in bioaerosols, led by Josh Santarpia, PhD. – associate professor, pathology and microbiology, UNMC; and research director, chemical and biological programs, NSRI – were called on to understand in detail the role of HVAC systems in spreading airborne particles on cruise ships. 

Mailbag: Should I book flights for my cruise if I'm not sure my cruise ships will sail?

25 Feb 2021

The uncertainty of when cruises might actually restart sailings again has a trickle down effect on second guessing a lot of other vacation decisions, including should you buy flights for a cruise that may or may not sail.

Every week I pull a popular question that RoyalCaribbeanBlog readers have been asking in case others are curious about the answer.

With the uncertainty of the Alaska cruise sailings this year, how close to our sail date should we have airline and hotel reservations? - Jamie H.

While Jamie asked about Alaska, this question can be applied to anyone with a cruise booked for later this year and trying to decide whether or not to make additional travel plans.

The issue with booking flights or hotels is laying out money for a cruise that may or may not happen, and getting a refund for it later.

Hotels are the easy answer, so let's begin there.

Most hotels allow for refundable deposits, so make sure you are only booking a refundable hotel rate.  In many cases, you many not have to put any money down in advance until either much closer to your check-in date or the day you check-in.

Your best bet is to keep tabs on hotel prices, because prices fluctuate constantly. Book only refundable rates, so you can easily cancel if the cruise ends up being cancelled.

Airfare is a bit more complicated and requires more money upfront compared to hotels.

Before the cruise industry shutdown, locking in flights for your cruise was a game of trying to time prices without risking the perfect flight times selling out.

Today, you have to balance price with flexibility.

Assuming you are willing to go on the cruise you have booked, yes, it is a good idea to book a flight to ensure you can make it to the cruise, but with a few caveats.

First and foremost, you want to book a flight that you will not be penalized for if you have to cancel.

Most airlines have pretty flexible cancellation terms these days, but make very certain there is no penalty for canceling the flight.

Unfortunately, most airlines will not refund you the money if you cancel.  Rather, you will get a credit for a future flight to use later.

Getting an airline credit is fine if it is an airline you fly regularly, but if your flight is on a different airline, this complicates the issue.  Getting a credit for an airline you will never fly is essentially throwing money away.

You could get a full refundable airfare, but refundable airfares tend to be extremely expensive.

An alternative is to book your flight directly with Royal Caribbean through their Air2Sea program.

Air2Sea is Royal Caribbean's airfare option for guests to purchase flights in conjunction with their cruise.

The nice thing about Air2Seas is because you are booking through Royal Caribbean, if the cruise line cancels the sailing, your airfare is fully refundable and the cruise line takes care of the cancellation process.

The cost of airfare will be added onto the cruise amount and payment will follow cruise payment guidelines (90 days prior to sailing).

The downside of using Air2Sea is there is an extra cost for going through the airline, but if you are considering booking international air travel and/or a flight on an airline you never fly, this might still be your best option.

Maximum flexibility is king right now, and the last thing you want to do is spend money on any aspect of your vacation that you have a good chance of never using. 

Whatever you book, be sure to consider the worst case scenario to ensure you don't regret it later.

Waiting to book

Another option is to wait a little bit longer until your cruise is closer.

Air travel is still depressed, and that means less people are flying than before the global health crisis began. 

There is a good argument to be made that waiting a few more weeks or months and perhaps paying a bit more for the flight is worth it to get a better sense of if your cruise will happen or not.

If your flight options are limited because of where you live, or where your cruise is sailing from, then you may not have a choice in waiting things out.  But if you live in a place where flights are plentiful, you might want to give it a little bit more time before pulling the trigger on a flight.

More mailbag questions:

Royal Caribbean's second cruise ship to restart sailing "could be outside the U.S."

24 Feb 2021

Royal Caribbean has been successfully sailing Quantum of the Seas in Singapore since December 2020, so what will be the next cruise ship to restart operations?

While Quantum will remain in operation from Singapore for a little while longer, further restart plans are still ambiguous.

During Royal Caribbean Group's fourth quarter earnings call with investors, the next ship to restart operations could be outside the United States.

Royal Caribbean Group CFO Jason Liberty noted the company could add a second ship outside of the U.S. soon, "We are already operating Quantum of the Seas in Singapore, and our second ship in the water could also be outside of the US."

The fact Royal Caribbean may be able to resume sailings outside of the United States is not surprising, considering the success it has had with Quantum of the Seas in Singapore and its TUI brand of cruise ships in Europe.

"These early returns to service not only provide vacations, but they provide an opportunity to demonstrate proof of concept as well," Royal Caribbean Group Chairman and CEO Richard Fain said during the call

"They provide important learnings on how we can coordinate most effectively with governments, port authorities, travel partners, and others to protect our guests, crew, and the destinations we visit."

Thus far, Royal Caribbean International President and CEO Michael Bayley said about 35,000 Singaporeans have sailed on Quantum of the Seas and he says the customer satisfaction increased with the new health protocols compared to before.

"The customer satisfaction ironically is higher with our protocols than it was before our protocols, which is quite funny in a way. And our revenue has exceeded our expectations both from a ticket and an onboard revenue perspective."

Which ship and where would it sail from?

Royal Caribbean cruises are shutdown in North America, Europe, and Australia through at least April.  Even May sailings look to be questionable at this point.

The ship with the best odds for that to occur is Spectrum of the Seas, since is scheduled to potentially restart sailings in China in April 2021.

Whether or not Spectrum sailings are able to restart in China remains to be seen, as throughout 2020 sailings from China looked like they might be able to restart sooner, but that never materialized.

Australia remains closed to cruise ship traffic, so that essentially leaves Europe.

Jason Liberty told investors during the call his company is working with governments around the world about opening back up, "With regards to ship starting in Australia or China or Europe or elsewhere, for example, we literally are in discussions globally around the world with different governments and looking at where they are with COVID and vaccines, et cetera, et cetera."

"I think the point is that there's a lot of opportunity that's starting to open up globally in terms of what's occurring with COVID. And so we are in discussions around the world."

Last, but not least, we have to remember the "second ship" that Mr. Liberty mentioned did not specify if that would be a Royal Caribbean International cruise ship, or a ship from one of the other brands operated under the Royal Caribbean Group corporate umbrella.

Azamara cancels all cruises through June 2021

24 Feb 2021

Royal Caribbean Group just sold its Azamara cruise line, and the new owners have cancelled cruises through June 30, 2021.

Azamara announced it has decided to extend its global suspension of cruises through June 30, 2021.

In a statement, Azamara said the cruise line wants to ensure it can sail safely, "As the world continues to confront the many challenges resulting from COVID-19, our primary goal continues to be a healthy return to service for our guests, crew and the communities we visit. "

Despite being sold, Azamara also said it is "working diligently with Royal Caribbean Group's Healthy Sail Panel to create a small-ship cruising experience that will protect the wellbeing of our guests and crew yet stay true to the Azamara spirit."

Royal Caribbean currently has its cruises cancelled through the end of April 2021.

Sycamore Partners recently acquired Azamara from Royal Caribbean Group in January 2021.

Royal Caribbean created Azamara in 2007 and operates a fleet of three small cruise ships.

During the earnings call with investors, Royal Caribbean Group CFO Jason Liberty said the sale of Azamara made sense given the opportunity, "This opportunity came our way here with Sycamore. It gives Azamara an opportunity to grow. And I think that it's a great brand that we think will do quite well under this other -- this other venture."

Guests with affected sailings have three options – accept a 125% future cruise credit to book a cruise by April 30, 2022 for departure before September 30, 2022; “lift and shift” the booking to a 2022 equivalent within four weeks of original sailing date; or request a full refund by May 20.

CDC asks Royal Caribbean to share covid safety technology from its cruise ships

23 Feb 2021

As the cruise industry inches ever closer to restarting operations, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has asked Royal Caribbean to share some of its safety technology, a cruise line executive revealed Monday.

On a Royal Caribbean Group earnings call, Michael Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, said the CDC has asked the line to share the technology behind two new tools on which it is heavily relying during Quantum of the Seas voyages, which resumed from Singapore on December 1, 2020, with no port calls.

"...that technology development is really, we think, groundbreaking and very sophisticated," Bayley said. "And in our conversations that we had the week before last with the CDC, they specifically asked us to share that technology and what we've been doing in Singapore with them, which we've subsequently done."

"There are two technologies that have come from Quantum that really are game-changing. One is the e-mustering, which completely transforms the whole process of lifeboat mustering," Bayley explained.

Muster 2.0 -- otherwise known as "e-mustering" -- is a system that helps to keep large groups of passengers from congregating for what, previously, was an in-person safety drill prior to sailaway on each cruise.

Now, passengers can simply watch safety briefings via a cell phone app or their in-cabin televisions. They will have a four-hour window in which to do so and then report, in person, to a designated area where a crew member will verify completion.

Read moreTop 10 questions about Royal Caribbean's new Muster 2.0

Bayley then discussed a second innovation used on Quantum of the Seas -- contact tracing.

"The second is, we've really developed technology for contact tracing, using a combination of technologies. One of them is a Tracelet, which basically each guest wears, and you can tell exactly how long they've been in contact with everybody else who's wearing a Tracelet.

"Then, we have artificial intelligence connected into basically CCTV cameras that use facial and body recognition to then double check and verify contact tracing in the event that somebody did have covid onboard the ship."

Although Royal Caribbean filed a patent for Muster 2.0 in 2019, months before the pandemic was declared, the Traclet's patent was filed in October 2020 as a means to help track covid cases onboard.

Read moreHow cruising changed on Royal Caribbean's first cruise back

Similar to Royal Caribbean's WOWBands, Tracelets are made of silicone. The latter use tracking technology to determine who came in contact with any person found to test positive for covid during a sailing. This information allows proper action to be taken in terms of isolating and quarantining to avoid further spread.

Royal Caribbean's new rules state the following:

"Contact tracing is an important part of our enhanced protocols to keep all our guests and crew safe. Each guest will be provided with a wearable device that allows rapid tracing in the event it is necessary. If you have found to have come within 6 feet of a covid-positive person, for at least 15 minutes, certain actions may be required for your safety and the safety of your fellow guests."

Currently, cruise lines are implementing a slew of new protocols in line with the CDC's conditional sail framework. They include improved air filtration systems and cleaning procedures, as well as plans for isolating, quarantining and disembarking ill passengers if necessary.

In order to test these protocols, cruise ships will soon be required to undergo test sailings with volunteer passengers. If all goes well, each vessel would then be required to receive authorization from the CDC in order to resume revenue voyages.

Royal Caribbean Group CEO talks when we can start having serious conversations to restart

22 Feb 2021

The one dominant question in the cruise industry is when will cruise ships be able to sail again.

Royal Caribbean Group Chairman and CEO Richard Fain spoke to CNBC following his company's fourth quarter 2020 earnings call about a variety of topics, but when cruises might restart was the primary concern.

While Royal Caribbean Group reported another billion dollar loss, they were quite pleased with strong demand for cruises in the second half of 2021 and into 2022.

CNBC Global Markets Reporter Seema Mody put it bluntly when she said, "all the demand in the world is no help. Richard, if the industry is not given the clearance from the CDC."

Mr. Fain pointed to restarting cruises will take a lot, and both the cruise industry and the CDC are looking at a variety of factors before cruises can restart.

"We just we're in the midst of a huge surge...over the end of last year," Mr. Fain explained. "Nobody was going to suggest that we start operating in that kind of environment."

"But as that's coming down, as the numbers get better, as the prevalence in society gets better, as the vaccine gets out there more, I think that's when we can start having serious conversations to restart."

Read moreRoyal Caribbean expecting CDC's technical instructions "any day"

So where is that point, exactly?

Mr. Fain said there is no single percentage or data point to look for, "I think the CDC, and we ourselves and our healthy sales panel, would say no one statistic is the determining factor."

"Unfortunately, there's no one magic threshold that says, 'now is the day. If we reach this point, we can go.'"

Read moreRoyal Caribbean talks vaccine impact, Cruises to Europe in 2021, Cuba and more

Passengers worst fear: infection or isolated?

Richard Fain also talked about the distinction between passengers fearing getting infected versus being stuck on a cruise ship as the result of a case.

"People aren't so much worried about getting sick on a ship, they're worried that somebody else gets sick and that that destroys their whole vacation.

"That's why the protocols that we've come up with, a big focus of them, is how do we isolate cases when we have a case because there will be cases on the ship just as there are always cases in society. Our job is to make sure that it stays cases and doesn't become an outbreak."

"That's a lot of our discussion with the with the CDC and others, and that the vaccines are a big part of that."

Can Royal Caribbean borrow even more money?

Seema Mody ended the interview by asking Richard Fain does Royal Caribbean have more resources to borrow if the shutdown continues.

"We have a quiver of things full of actions we could take if we needed."

"We have been methodical about this and always looking fairly far out so that we're not dealing with an imminent issue. We always want to be dealing with if something goes wrong, we have time to fix it."

"And in this case, we've built up enough of our liquidity. We've built up enough of our ammunition so that we have the luxury of not having to deal with the crisis, but to gradually improve our liquidity, our financial health, because we want to get back to investment grade as quickly as we can."

Royal Caribbean talks vaccine impact, Cruises to Europe in 2021, Cuba and more

22 Feb 2021

Royal Caribbean held an hour long meeting with Wall Street investors that touched on topics ranging from what the vaccine rollout is doing to help bookings and protocols, booking trends, Cuba cruises and much more.

Financial analysts asked Royal Caribbean Group executives a myriad of questions surrounding their near- and long-term futures that provided interesting insight into what they are seeing and expecting right now.

Here is a breakdown of some of the most interesting anecdotes to come out of the call.

Cruising in a vaccine world

One major change since the last earnings call with investors is the role of the Covid vaccine.  It has gone from theoretical to beginning widespread distribution, and it has fundamentally changed how Royal Caribbean and governments seen cruise ships restarting.

When Royal Caribbean Group produced their 74 recommendations for cruise ships to restart sailings safely, it was crafted without vaccines in mind, but the world is changing.

Royal Caribbean Group Chairman and CEO Richard Fain sees early 2021 as an interim period, where the vaccines are still relatively new.

"They're coming out amazingly quickly, but it still is going to take months to get huge numbers of people vaccinated."

Neither the cruise lines or governments have answers yet on how effective the vaccines are, and what effect they will have on the populous, but Mr. Fain is optimistic based on the results of Israel, where a speedy rollout has spurred a quick return to normalcy.

"We think that the vaccine is, of course, the ultimate weapon and the fact that it is coming out and beginning to come out so quickly and that the pace of that is growing will be a basis for a new set of of approaches."

Mr. Fain admitted no one knows yet what those new vaccine-bolstered protocols will look like.

Read moreRoyal Caribbean adds COVID-19 into cruise contract for all passengers

What will cruises in Europe be like 2021?

A lot of attention has been placed with the CDC and cruise lines in North America, but what about cruises to Europe where American regulations do not apply?

Royal Caribbean International President and CEO Michael Bayley confirmed that while their sailings in Europe are not subject to the CDC jurisdiction, he believes they will be guided by the protocols coming from either the Healthy Sail Panel, European Union, or U.K.

"We know that the operations in some of the European countries, particularly Germany, Italy, have been ongoing for the past couple of month... and those protocols that have government operations have basically been based on the Healthy Sail Panel or the CLIA member policies, and then overlaid with specific instructions by the National Health Authority."

"I think what we're going to see is very similar to what we're going to see in the United States, which is as we continue to see infections decline and vaccines increase, then we're going to move to protocols that probably are some kind of hybrid between vaccines and testing."

"We imagine that they'll be very similar to the guidelines that we'll get from the CDC."

Read moreRoyal Caribbean expecting CDC's technical instructions "any day"

Correlation between vaccine distributions & new bookings

Perhaps nothing has been more beneficial to Royal Caribbean's bottom line or overall morale than the rollout of Covid vaccines.

Mr. Bayley noted almost as soon as vaccines got approval, bookings jumped, "One of the things that we've seen really after we came out of the holidays early in January, is a proportional increase in the number of guests booking who were 65 plus, and that is continue to increase."

"Our belief is, is that 65 plus are getting vaccinated, then they're obviously becoming more comfortable with booking, and we're seeing that very much in our bookings from about January forward."

"As the vaccine spreads down into the population by age, we'll see that probably accelerate."

Royal Caribbean Group Chief Financial Officer Jason Liberty added that while experienced cruisers have been the backbone for bookings since the shutdown, there has been more recently an increase in new cruisers booking around the same timeframe Mr. Bayely talked about.

"As the vaccines are being rolled out, we're seeing that there's a pretty strong relationship to booking volumes and and vaccines."

"What we have seen more recently, though, it's not back to where it was pretty Covid, there has been an increase in first two crews coming back into the space."

"It's also building confidence that we're getting closer to the other side of this and people are beginning to realize that that travel should be here sooner rather than later."

98% of crew members in favor of getting vaccinated

Royal Caribbean recently announced it plans to get all of its crew members vaccinated, and that has overwhelmingly been met with positivity by the crew.

Mr. Bayley said Royal Caribbean sent out a survey to all of their crew members last week, which totals around 70,000 employees.

Of the 32,000 responses they got within 12 hours, 98% of all of the crew who responded they were in favor of being required to get the Covid vaccine in order to work.

"We also learned that over 4000 of our crew have already been vaccinated at home."

"I think we are very encouraged by the results."

Read moreIt looks like Royal Caribbean will vaccinate its crew members

There is at least one ship that can still go to Cuba

As soon as Royal Caribbean announced Majesty of the Seas and Empress of the Seas would be sold, there was immediate concern there would not be a ship capable of going to Cuba if that ever re-opened.

Michael Bayley was equally concerned when the news came there was a buyer.

"We do have a ship, ships, that will fit into into Cuba if that should come back."

He did not specify which vessel that was.

Read moreRoyal Caribbean sold two smaller cruise ships with enormous legacies

Will they sell more cruise ships?

Could Royal Caribbean sell more cruise ships? It depends on the opportunity.

Jason Liberty said Royal Caribbean will remain "opportunistic".

"I think we need to remember that pre-pandemic, all of these ships generated quite a bit of cash flow."

"For us typically to test on on a ship is a little bit less about the cash that we would receive; It's more strategic on whether we think this ship, whether it's in its current state or through some moderate investment, fits our brands."

Royal Caribbean expecting CDC's technical instructions "any day"

22 Feb 2021

Cruise lines could finally get the critical information they need from the U.S. Center for Disease Control Control (CDC) to get test cruises going.

During Royal Caribbean Group's fourth quarter 2020 earnings call with investors, Royal Caribbean International President and CEO Michael Bayley gave an update on where things stand with the CDC.

Mr. Bayley said that Royal Caribbean has been in "regular communication" with the CDC and expects to get technical instructions on what each ship needs to do in order to prepare itself for test cruises.

"We're literally expecting the technical specifications any day soon," Mr. Bayley told investors.

When the CDC lifted the No Sail Order at the end of October and replaced it with the Framework for Conditional Sail Order, the CDC outlined a series of steps required for cruises to be able to progress towards restarting.

Cruise lines are still waiting for those instructions.

Read moreEverything you need to know about Royal Caribbean test cruises

"It's an intergovernmental process between several agencies within the government that are reviewing the technical specifications."

"But they've assured us as soon as all of these things come together, they want to get us back into operations. So we're just literally waiting."

With dropping infection rates, Royal Caribbean sees higher optimism for test cruises to begin.

"We're waiting and, you know, hopefully we'll get them soon and we can we can start a trial sailings."

The fact all cruise lines are still waiting for technical instructions from the CDC came up in January when Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald told investors during an earnings call that they were still waiting on additional guidelines from the CDC for future phases.

In early February, the CDC confirmed to RoyalCaribbeanBlog that the agency had still not delivered those instructions to cruise lines, but was coming soon.

"We anticipate the next phase of technical instructions (Technical Instructions for Port and Local Health Authorities Agreements) to be released in the next few weeks."

Working with the CDC

The nature of Royal Caribbean's relationship with the CDC also came up during the call, as many in the public point out the different approach the CDC has taken with cruise lines versus other sectors of travel.

Mr. Bayley characterized the discussions with the CDC as "productive".

"They're dealing with an incredibly challenging situation and environment."

"They've assured us on several occasions that when these indicators really start to move in a very positive way, then they'll start working with us to get us back into operation. And that's exactly what we're seeing now."

"My sense is, is that we're getting closer and closer to good news."

In terms of getting a sense of what the CDC or cruise lines are looking for in these statistics, there are still unknowns, but Royal Caribbean Group Chairman and CEO Richard Fain pointed to factors such as how quickly the vaccine continues to roll out, or how the Covid variants will affect numbers going forward.

"I think it's premature for them, or for us, to try and speculate on what threshold the number has to be, because it's so many variables."

"I think we're more encouraged to see the really dramatic drop that we've been experiencing and the really nice roll out, particularly in the United States, in the U.K., in the in the vaccine."

Mailbag: What are the chances my cruise will sail?

19 Feb 2021

Perhaps no other question has been asked as often over the course of the last year as the likelihood of their cruise actually sailing.

Every week I pull a popular question that RoyalCaribbeanBlog readers have been asking to help everyone who might be wondering the same thing.

I have a cruise booked for October 2021 on Harmony of the Seas. What are the chances this cruise will be able to sail? - Rick T.

Rick's question can be expanded to almost any sailing booked this year (or even in 2022), because after a year of no cruises and plenty of cancellations, it's difficult to know when cruises will be able to restart.

Unfortunately for Rick, and anyone else wondering the same thing, there is no answer. 

Nobody knows with any kind of accuracy.

Why is it so difficult to know when cruises might restart?

Essentially, there is not enough information to make any kind of predictions that are not purely random guesses.

We learned earlier this month that the U.S. Center for Disease Control Control (CDC) has not delivered to the cruise lines yet the technical instructions on what each ship needs to do in order to prepare itself for test cruises.

This is a major hurdle for Royal Caribbean to begin implementing new health protocols on its cruise ships and conduct test sailings.

It is generally believed that before any cruise ship can sail again, test sailings need to occur and be validated by CDC observers.  At that point, a cruise line can apply for conditional approval to resume sailings.

Other than canceling upcoming cruises a month at a time, Royal Caribbean has not provided any outlook or prediction on when sailings might restart.

In fact, Royal Caribbean Group Chairman and CEO Richard Fain told travel agents earlier this month he says no one yet knows for certain when cruises will resume en masse.

"My answer is consistently, I don't know. But more recently, my answer has been, I don't know, but that's the good direction to be going in."

Time is on your side

The best answer to Rick's question on the chances his sailing will occur, is to say the further out your cruise is, the higher the likelihood of it occurring.

Right now, the world is in a race to distribute vaccines to help bring down the number of cases that are contributing to there being a public health emergency.

The further out you go into 2021, the more time pharmaceutical companies and governments have to produce and distribute vaccines to the population.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, co-chair of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings’ and Royal Caribbean Group’s Healthy Sail Panel, said as soon as the end of March the vaccine may be widely available to residents of the United States.

Dr. Gottlieb estimates 250 million doses will have been delivered to some 150 million people by the end of March.

Of course, there are lots of conflicting predictions on when "herd immunity" may become a reality, but even conservative estimates put widespread vaccine distribution in the summer. 

All of this means cruises scheduled for summer 2021 and beyond certainly appear to have a higher chance of occurring.

What signs to look for when cruises might restart?

Besides Royal Caribbean actually announcing a firm restart plan, there are likely to be indications things are moving in the direction of cruises being able to restart.

Rehiring crew members is always a positive sign that cruise lines are thinking they want to do something to get closer to restarted. There have been times over the last year when crew were hired, then cancelled their plans to come back, so it is not always a firm indicator.

The best sign will be when test sailings can commence.  In order to get approval to sail, all cruise lines need to demonstrate to the CDC that new health protocols can work.

Test cruises are simulated sailings with mostly cruise line employees onboard pretending to be guests.  Travel agents are also likely to be on at least some of those sailings.

Any test sailings are a very good sign of what to expect.

In addition, comments from cruise line executives may provide context in the next few weeks and months of the direction things are going.

More mailbag questions:

Luxury cruise line will require everyone to get a COVID-19 vaccine

19 Feb 2021

The biggest cruise line yet has announced it will require its passengers onboard to have a Covid-19 vaccine in order to sail.

Luxury cruise line Crystal Cruises announced one of its new health protocols is to require the Covid-19 vaccine of guests.

A few other smaller cruise lines made similar announcement, but Crystal is arguably the most notable cruise line yet to do so.

Guests must be fully inoculated with a Covid-19 vaccine (with both doses if recommended by the manufacturer) at least 14 days prior to boarding any Crystal ship and will be asked to provide proof of vaccination before embarkation. 

Passengers sailing on Crystal will be required to take precautionary steps that includes negative Covid-19 tests for both guests and crew, reduced capacity, social distancing, nimble mask requirements, health screening questionnaires and more. 

Crystal admits right now when everyone can get the vaccine remains to be seen, but they believe by the time they are ready to restart operations in May or June, there will be sufficient time for guests to be vaccinated.

If someone is unable to be fully inoculated in time, Crystal says guests booked on 2021 voyages (except those booked on the Advance Purchase Savings program) have the option to move to a later departure date or cancel up until 60 days prior to first service without penalty. 

Verified documentation of vaccination and negative Covid-19 test will be required at the time of boarding in English, and failure to provide this documentation will result in denial of boarding. 

On the subject of children, Crystal recognizes that the vaccines are currently only approved for people 18 years or older. Regardless, the cruise line is unable to accommodate anyone, no matter what age, who has not been vaccinated. 

In addition to passengers, crew members will also be expected to be vaccinated.

Crew members are required to be tested for Covid-19 prior to leaving their home location to join the ship and must receive a negative result; they also will take a COVID-19 test at embarkation; quarantine for seven days upon arrival; and take a test at the end of that seven-day period and must receive a negative result, before beginning their duties. When vaccines are widely available, they will be a requirement of employment at least 14 days prior to service.

While Crystal will require the vaccine of guests and crew, testing before, during, and after the cruise is still required of everyone. Many governments - including the United States - and certain airlines require proof of negative Covid-19 test no more than three days before entry or flight departure, regardless of vaccination status.

Crystal is not the first cruise line to require the vaccine, but it is the most notable line thus far. 

Saga Cruises became the first cruise line to require the Covid-19 vaccine when it announced the requirement in January 2021. Thus far, only small cruise lines have required vaccines of guests.

Royal Caribbean has only committed to requiring the vaccine of crew members, but has not made any decision related to requiring it of passengers.

Industry expert Stewart Chiron thought Crystal's new policy was "premature" based on his post on Twitter.

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