“We are excited to get back to delivering memorable vacations in the Caribbean, gradually and safely,” Michael Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, said in a statement. “The vaccines are clearly a game changer for all of us, and with the number of vaccinations and their impact growing rapidly, we believe starting with cruises for vaccinated adult guests and crew is the right choice.”
He added: “As we move forward, we expect this requirement and other measures will inevitably evolve over time.”
The announcement comes as cruise operators await more instructions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to return to service in the United States. After issuing a no-sail order in March 2020 and extending the order, the agency said in October that it would take “a phased approach to resuming cruise ship passenger operations in U.S. waters.”
More than five months later, the agency is still in an early phase of the process. The CDC still recommends that “all people avoid travel on cruise ships” worldwide.
“I think we’re increasingly anxious and a little impatient waiting for guidance,” Bayley said in an interview Friday morning. He said that since a panel of health experts assembled by Royal Caribbean and Norweigan Cruise Line Holdings submitted recommendations last year for a safe return to sailing, the arrival of vaccines has been transformational. “So we are concerned that the process has been slow. And we’re concerned that it’s going to be based upon the past rather than the future and what we’re seeing with vaccines.”
Royal Caribbean has suspended sailings until May 31, aside from four ships that are scheduled to be sailing in China, Singapore and Israel. The Israel sailings, which the company announced earlier this month, will be open to fully vaccinated locals and will visit Greece and Cyprus.
The Miami-based cruise line will base Adventure of the Seas, a 20-year-old ship that can hold 3,114 passengers at double occupancy, in Nassau from June through August. Seven-night sailings will include stops in Grand Bahama Island, Cozumel and two days at Perfect Day at CocoCay, the cruise line’s private island in the Bahamas. All staff there will be fully vaccinated. An announcement says passengers will be able to “safely explore each destination’s culture, history, cuisine and natural beauty on selected Royal Caribbean shore excursions.”
Travelers will have to fly to the Bahamas to take the cruises, though flights are quick from South Florida, a source for many cruise passengers.
“We think there’s a huge amount of pent-up demand,” Bayley said.
Cruisers will have to follow the rules in place for visitors to the Bahamas, which may include a negative coronavirus test before arriving and testing upon arrival. The United States also requires people to test negative before coming back into the country.
“Cruising is a vital part of The Bahamas’ economy and having Royal Caribbean and their guests return to our shores will contribute greatly to restoring and reactivating tourism,” Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, said in the statement. “We have been preparing diligently for the last many months to ensure an experience that is equally safe and enjoyable.”
Royal Caribbean is not the first operator to announce cruises from the Bahamas. Luxury line Crystal Cruises announced last week that it would offer seven-night cruises that sail exclusively in the Bahamas this summer. The company is requiring passengers to be fully vaccinated.
Celebrity Cruises, a Royal Caribbean sister line, said Friday that it too would resume cruising in June — in its case, from St. Maarten. Crew and adult passengers will be required to be vaccinated, and children under 18 will need to test negative. Those sailings will visit either Aruba, Curaçao and Barbados, or Tortola, St. Lucia and Barbados.
“It’s apparent cruise lines will not wait for CDC and will have to begin cruising from non-U. S. ports,” said Stewart Chiron, CEO of the site CruiseGuy.com, in an email.
Bayley said the sailings will probably start out about 50 to 60 percent full, though he said that number could move up.
The cruise line has not yet said what other safety measures passengers will have to take. Cruises that have started around the world have required testing, mask-wearing and distancing on board.
“We really want to wait, and where the science takes us in the next month or two is exactly where we’ll end up,” Bayley said.
CDC spokeswoman Caitlin Shockey told The Washington Post in January that vaccinations should be considered one “effective strategy available for reducing covid-19 transmission” during travel, but they should be accompanied by other measures including testing, mask-wearing, distancing and frequent handwashing.
Royal Caribbean and other large cruise lines have not said if they will have a blanket requirement for vaccinations on U.S. sailings when cruises finally resume. A few smaller lines have said they will require vaccinations for passengers, including Crystal and Virgin Voyages.
The Cruise Lines International Association said in a statement earlier this week that it is encouraged by the acceleration of the vaccination rollout.
“CLIA and our members lines are closely monitoring the rollout of the vaccine around the world and considering the best, most workable approach to incorporate vaccinations into our robust protocols,” spokeswoman Bari Golin-Blaugrund said in an email. “Of course, much of the world does not yet have widespread access to vaccines yet, which is an important consideration.”