Cruise lines are increasingly making moves to homeport their cruise ships in the Caribbean and offer fly-cruise packages to the North American market as US transportation and health authorities continue to assess the feasibility of allowing a US cruise restart.
The CDC recently indicated that it is only in Phase 1 of a four-phase process that will ultimately potentially allow cruises to resume from US ports, suggesting a US cruise restart may not be on the horizon any time soon.
Unable to wait any longer for restart approval in the US, cruise lines are now announcing plans to homeport their ships in Caribbean ports within short flight distances of their traditional North American source markets.
Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises are the two largest North American cruise lines to have confirmed a Caribbean season thus far, with Crystal Cruises also having announced a range of Caribbean cruises from the Bahamas.
Celebrity will homeport in St Maarten, while Royal Caribbean will cruise from Nassau. Both ports will benefit significantly from the move, as studies have shown that homeport status brings in far more revenue per passenger than what destination ports receive.
It’s for this reason that Barbados has been pushing cruise lines to homeport there, and has secured a commitment from Royal Caribbean to do so toward the end of 2021. A separate report by Caribbean Maritime states that cruise tourism is the single largest sector of the wider tourism industry in the region:
The business of receiving ships and people injects millions of dollars into Caribbean national economies in the form of wages and purchases. As a result, cruise travel is now the largest sector of the Caribbean tourism industry.
However, it also points out the immense benefit that comes with homeport status compared to being a destination port:
Caribbean countries benefit from home-porting. It generates more airlifts in and out of Caribbean destinations; brings additional business for local services like hotels, bunkering, fresh water provisioning, garbage disposal and sludge removal. It also creates the potential for pre- and post-cruise extension visits.
It’s for this reason that tourism officials in the Bahamas have called the new homeporting trend a “milestone” achievement for the country, which has long been a major cruise destination, but has traditionally lost out on homeport status to US ports, such as Miami.
All eyes are now on Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line, the two remaining ‘big three’ North American lines, to see if they will follow Royal Caribbean and Celebrity into the Caribbean this summer.
Carnival, for its part, however, has ruled out such a move, insisting that it has always cruised from the United States and plans to do so again when it gets permission for a US cruise restart.
“I have always said that Carnival Cruise Line is America’s cruise line,” said Duffy. “We sail from 14 UShomeports, 50 percent of our itineraries are less than seven-day sailings, and a significant number of our guests drive to their Carnival cruise vacation.”
“We also sail more families with children than any other cruise line. And as you know, so far the vaccines are not approved for anyone under the age of 16,” she added.
It could be some time before US cruises resume. The CDC recently updated its guidance on cruises, urging cruise lines to only accept vaccinated guests, but gave no new information on when approval might be given for cruises to resume from US ports.
Norwegian Cruise Line has submitted a plan to the CDC that would see cruises resume from the US in July, if approved. The cruise line said that its Covid-19 vaccination policy matches the CDC’s guidance.
Meanwhile, the US cruise industry is putting increasing pressure on the CDC and transportation officials to ease the restrictions on cruises from American ports.
“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has put the multi-billion-dollar U.S. cruise industry in limbo with no updates since it issued the CSO in October 2020,” Galveston Wharves Port Director and CEO Rodger Rees said in a statement this week, echoing similar criticism from the Cruise Line International Association.
“For a year now, we have been working closely with our cruise partners and directly with the CDC to find a way forward for the return of cruising from Port Canaveral,” said Captain John Murray, Port Canaveral CEO, in a separate statement.
“[The] CDC announced vaccinated Americans could safely travel internationally. We’re disappointed that this guidance for the cruise industry appears to be nothing more than an incremental step in a far-reaching process to resume passenger sailings in the U.S. with no definitive or target start date,” he added.