As cruise lines tentatively plan their return to the seas, there’s a wrinkle: Some destinations want ships to stay away for a while — and the dates have been a moving target.
Canada and Australia both recently extended their cruise ship bans to later this year. The Cayman Islands did the same. And the Seychelles, an Indian Ocean archipelago, doesn’t want to see ships until 2022, according to local media.
The bans reflect the countries’ concerns about how the introduction of visitors could interfere with efforts to control the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“Is it worth the risk of bringing in tourists, whether it’s cruise or not, bringing tourists in and potentially increasing that exposure?” asked Rob Kwortnik, an associate professor at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration who teaches about the cruise industry.
“Our government is committed to protecting Canadians, particularly during these challenging times,” Marc Garneau, Canada’s minister of transport, said in a statement last week. “It is for that reason I am announcing updated measures for cruise ships and other passenger vessels in Canada, which includes prohibiting larger cruise ships from operating in Canadian waters until October 31, 2020.”
The order applies to cruise ships that are allowed to carry more than 100 people.
The Australian Border Force said in late May that its restriction on cruise ships capable of carrying more than 100 passengers would be extended until Sept. 17. The decision reflects the government’s “overwhelming priority to ensure the health and safety of the broader Australian community," according to a statement.
Officials in the Cayman Islands have said cruise ships will not be allowed back until at least Sept. 1, though they offered no guarantee about that date. The first person to have a confirmed case of covid-19 in the Cayman Islands was a cruise ship passenger who was taken to a local hospital during a March sailing and died.
Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell said in a statement that making sure the coronavirus has a minimum impact on the destination is the government’s highest priority.
“It is in the best interest of us all — the Cayman Islands community and the cruise lines — to ensure that all safety and health protocols are followed,” Kirkconnell said. “The Cayman Islands looks forward to embracing travelers with its warm Caymankindness once it has been deemed safe to do so."
And in the Seychelles, which welcomed 39 ship visits carrying nearly 67,000 people last year, authorities said ships would be banned until the end of 2021, according to the Seychelles Nation.
The decisions shed light on how complicated it will be for the cruise industry to return to anything resembling normalcy as they rely on various health agencies and government approvals to resume. Some have said when they hope to start sailing again, but with huge caveats that their plans are subject to change.
Most itinerary planning happens years in advance, so cruise lines find themselves in an unfamiliar position of not knowing where they’ll be allowed to sail in the coming months.
“It does create an enormous planning challenge for the industry, and it’s not one that they haven’t faced before,” Kwortnik said, referring to changes that sometimes have to be made in response to political turmoil or other disruptions. “That’s the nice thing about having assets that move: You can do that. It doesn’t mean it’s frictionless, but you can do it.”
Cruise lines do run the risk of upsetting customers if they sell cruises and then have to make too many changes, he said.
“I know that a missed destination on an itinerary — a ship that has to skip a port because of weather or something like that, people are furious,” he said. “It’s super risky to promote destinations and then say well, we’re going to have to start pulling things.”
The recent extensions of port closures have forced cruise operators to call off more voyages before they even start cruising again following an industry-wide shutdown in mid-March. Just this week, Princess Cruises announced it would not operate cruises in Australia, Canada, the California coast and Taiwan at various dates this summer and fall “due to extension of the closure of cruise ports in regions around the world and other factors impacting international travel.”
Royal Caribbean also said this week that it would cancel all sailings to Alaska, Hawaii, Canada and New England this year because of the Canadian government’s restriction.
“We are working with public health agencies and governments to ensure a safe return to service, and look forward to setting sail from and to these destinations next year,” the operator said.
Norwegian Cruise Line said in a statement that the company is in “constant communication” with local port and government authorities.
“As such, we continue to evaluate when we will be able to resume cruise voyages and are optimistic that we will sail again in the near future,” the statement said. Meanwhile, the operator is evaluating its options where planned itineraries would have to change.
Roger Frizzell, chief communications officer for Carnival Corp., said the company’s global brands keep extending their cruise cancellations as they look to authorities and medical experts for cues on the best time to resume.
“The timing continues to be highly speculative as this point based on when society is ready to social gathering again and when broader travel and hospitality can get underway on a larger scale,” Frizzell said in an email.
He said he expects timetables to vary in different countries and for the company’s ships to start sailing gradually, starting in select destinations.
Still, Royal Caribbean Cruises chief executive Richard Fain said the world’s second-largest cruise company is still in talks with ports and countries that are eager for ships to return.
“The disease itself is causing immeasurable pain and suffering to the direct victims,” he said. “But the indirect victims, the people who are locked in their homes, the people who have lost their jobs, this is pretty painful too. And so I would say the balance is very clearly the ports that are talking to us about ‘How do we get you back here soon?’ is much more than ‘Oh, I’m worried about that.’ ”
Kwortnik said the reluctance of some countries to have ships return could drive ships to spend more time in destinations they have developed.
“The cruise lines can say, ‘We’re going to start off going to our private islands because we can control that experience from start to finish. We can minimize that exposure,’” he said.