Cruises for Americans Are Coming Back—With or Without CDC Blessing
(Bloomberg) -- Crystal Cruises is getting Americans back out on its luxury ships—with or without a green light from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While most major cruise companies continue to wait for the government agency to establish guidelines for a safe return to sea, the two-ship Crystal, owned by Genting Hong Kong, is taking another route entirely. On Thursday it opened sales for 16 itineraries that sail exclusively around the Bahamas a week at a time, starting in July, allowing American travelers easy access while bypassing all U.S. restrictions.
The trips will only be made available to fully inoculated travelers, who must show their vaccine cards before boarding. They’ll sail from Nassau or Bimini to Great Exuma and several islands not typically frequented by cruise ships—all on the 980-passenger Crystal Serenity, known for such niceties as butler-serviced penthouse suites and complimentary Nobu sushi. Prices will start at $1,999 per person.
“While many of our guests have explored the far reaches of the world, this is a time when people are staying closer to home as the world emerges from a year of not traveling,” says Jack Anderson, Crystal’s interim president and CEO.
The one cruise line that started up sailings in the Caribbean, SeaDream Yacht Club, had to cut short its first sailing in November when a Covid outbreak occurred onboard; the entire season was cancelled. In Europe and Asia, cruises have fared better—partly because of so-called “cruises to nowhere” that mitigate exposure at ports by only spending time at sea; P&O Cruises in Britain just announced a summer voyage on Wednesday. Currently, the CDC lists cruise travel as “very high risk.”
Without further guidance from the CDC, Crystal is taking the lead on establishing Covid-19 safety protocol of its own. For that, it looked to sister line Dream Cruises; over the last seven months, it has operated cruises for locals in Singapore and Taiwan without a single confirmed case, mostly by relying on rapid antigen tests at the embarkation terminal, mandatory temperature checks, masks, and social distancing as preventative measures.
Crystal also polled its past and prospective customers to understand what would drive consumer confidence. According to Anderson, 80% said traveling among an exclusively immune population would be key.
Getting sign off from the Bahamas—one of the few destinations in the Caribbean region capable of entertaining cruisers on multiple islands—was an easier proposition. The nation depends on tourism for half its employment and more than half its GDP, with roughly two-thirds of its 7.2 million annual visitors arriving by cruise ship.
“After a long, arduous year, the partnership with Crystal Cruises is an exceptionally positive and exciting development and was met with great celebration,” Dionisio D’Aguilar, Bahamas minister of tourism and aviation, tells Bloomberg. “This is the first of many steps in getting our vital tourism sector booming again.”
Crystal’s parent company, Genting, needs the cashflow, too. In August, it halted debt payments to creditors, blaming a cash crunch due to the pandemic. This week, the company’s shareholders were warned to expect a net loss of at least $1.5 billion for 2020. Crystal itself has also caught flack for being slow to pay passenger refunds on sailings cancelled due to the pandemic.
“The sooner we can return to business, the better,” says Anderson. “But we have to do so in the most responsible way possible.”
A focus on outdoorsy activities helps. On the new itineraries, guests may swim with pigs in Great Exuma; snorkel among dolphins and rays in Bimini; explore San Salvador, the first landing spot of Christopher Columbus; lounge on the pink sand beaches of Harbour Island; and go sport fishing in scenic, sparsely-populated Long Island.
Before getting on the ship, cruisers will have to follow Bahamian entry rules that have been in place since borders opened in July. The requirements include a pre-trip PCR test, obtaining a Bahamas Travel Health Visa, an antigen test on the fifth day of vacation. To deliver the latter—as well as PCR tests that are required for re-entry to the U.S.—Crystal is outfitting Serenity with its own Covid-19 testing lab.
There will also be additional measures taken on board. Crew will be PCR-tested before departure and, hopefully, vaccinated by July—pending availability in their home countries. Masks will be required wherever physical distancing is not possible. And the line will set aside around 40 cabins for any quarantine that is needed.
Noting that Covid cases are at a low-level in the islands, D’Aguilar said at a virtual news conference that he expects the cruises to be well-received—though he is prepared for some pushback from islanders. He added that officials have until July to “sensitize and advise our citizenry to the cruises that are coming into their islands.”
Adds Crystal’s Anderson, “There is mutual trust that these itineraries will support the resurgence of travel and the local businesses, while ensuring everyone’s well-being as the utmost priority.”
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