Some cruise lines plan to resume sailing as early as this summer, but will passengers get on board?

Both Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line aim to resume cruise operations as early as this summer, despite recent COVID-19 outbreaks on dozens of cruise ships and travel restrictions that have yet to be lifted. 

But it remains to be seen if the cruise lines, headquartered in the U.S., would get the go-head to sail again so soon, and — even if they do — if passengers will be keen to get on board.

“It’s so in flux, that it’s almost ludicrous,” said cruise industry expert Ross Klein, a sociology professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He calls the plans to resume cruises this summer “aspirational.”

“There’s so much we don’t know yet,” he said.

Due to concerns over COVID-19 spreading on cruise ships, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued a “no sail order” on March 14 to all cruise ships in U.S. waters. The order is set to expire on July 24 — unless the CDC decides to extend it.

The effects of COVID-19 have devastated the cruise industry and raised speculation that some cruise operators may not survive. Norwegian was facing deep financial troubles — until it was rescued this week by investors who delivered a big cash injection.

On Wednesday, Norwegian told CBC News it planned to relaunch cruise operations beginning July 1. When asked how it planned to address the CDC’s “no sail order,” the cruise line responded Friday with a revised statement that it “expects” to start sailing sometime between July and September. It offered no further details. 

Cruise ships may look very different if they must adhere to social distancing rules when resuming operations. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

Carnival, whose CEO says it’s financially stable, announced this week it plans to resume cruises starting Aug. 1, with eight ships sailing from the U.S. to the Caribbean.

The cruise line emphasized the plan is contingent on approval from stakeholders, such as governments and the CDC.

“Nothing is finalized,” said Carnival spokesperson Vance Gulliksen in an email to CBC News. “A variety of contingencies must be in place in advance of any potential sailing.” 

Industry expert Klein estimates cruise companies have a 30 per cent chance of getting approval to start sailing this summer.

He also questions if summer cruises would even be profitable, if cruise companies are only allowed to fill half the ship due to social distancing rules.

“You can’t have dining room tables with people rubbing elbows,” he said. “You can’t have slot machines in the casino side by side.”

Who will sign up?

Passenger demand for cruises also remains a question mark.

Carnival Corp. — which owns Carnival and eight other cruise lines — told CBC News it has “extremely loyal” customers who are eager to cruise again, and that it continues to enhance its health and safety protocols.

For Canadians who are eager to sign up, the federal government will first have to lift its advisories against cruise travel and non-essential international travel, and reopen the U.S.-Canada border. The border is currently closed until May 21, and that date could be extended.

But even if the border reopens, many Canadians may not be ready for a cruise. Travel agent Katherine Le said she hasn’t had any customers inquire about cruises this summer.

“It’s too early for them,” said Le, president of Eastview Travel in Ottawa. “Customers [are] still like kind of scared.” 

Robert Rorison and wife, Marilyn of Surrey, B.C., plan to go on a Caribbean cruise in November, if cruising is deemed safe by then. (Submitted by Robert Rorison)

Robert Rorison of Surrey, B.C., agreed. He has been on more than 40 cruises, but said he’s not ready yet to get back on board. 

“The biggest fear is the countries would lock down again and not let you dock,” he said.

Rorison speaks from experience: he was on the Zaandam, a Holland America Line ship that had a COVID-19 outbreak on board in March. Four passengers died.

The other passengers remained stuck onboard for more than two weeks, because the Zaandam struggled to find a port willing to let it dock and disembark passengers due to fears over COVID-19.

“We don’t want to end up In the same situation as we were on the Zaandam,” said Rorison. “It was just unquestionably one of the worst experiences of our life.” 

Holland America is also owned by Carnival Corp. 

Passengers Chris and Anna Joiner send a desperate message for help while stuck on board the Zaandam cruise ship with a COVID-19 outbreak and 4 deaths. (Submitted by Chris Joiner)

Even after that horrific experience, Rorison said he plans to return to cruising at some point, because it’s a great way to travel. “You can just get on the ship, hang up your clothes and go from port to port to different, wonderful places.”

Back in January, he and his wife booked a second cruise sailing to the Caribbean in November. Rorison said he’ll get board if the COVID-19 pandemic is deemed under control and cruise ship travel is once again considered safe. 

“We’re relying on the government to tell us whether it’s safe or unsafe. If they call it unsafe, we won’t go,” he said. 

Travel agent Le said some of her customers are also interested in cruising this fall — if they feel it’s safe to do so. 

The CDC told CBC News it doesn’t have enough information yet to declare when it will be safe for cruise ships to sail again. 

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