Return of cruise ships still up in the air

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Rocks are seen under the water near the Port of Hilo on Friday.

Exactly 33,400 trans-Pacific passengers arrived Thursday by air at Hawaii’s major airports, but the question of when the Aloha State will once again welcome cruise ship passengers at its ports remains unanswered.

“There are no formally scheduled bookings for any cruises, at any commercial harbor, at this time,” said Shelly Kunishige, spokeswoman for the Hawaii Department of Transportation in an email. “Resumption of cruise activity continues to be conditional on operators meeting the conditions of the CDC order.”

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Kunishige is referring to a conditional sail order by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which requires cruise operators to show 95% of crew and passengers are vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, or to hold test cruises with volunteer passengers to prove they can mitigate coronavirus risks.

There were numerous outbreaks of COVID-19 aboard cruise ships early in the pandemic, and the CDC dry-docked the industry in the U.S. with a no-sail order on March 14, 2020.

Previous optimism by tourism officials about a possible return of cruise ships to Hawaii’s harbors later this year has been dashed, or at least dampened, by the Delta variant strain of the novel coronavirus that has resulted in a surge of new COVID-19 cases in the islands.

According to the state Department of Health’s online COVID-19 dashboard on Friday, the seven-day average new case count for the state between July 29 and Aug. 4 was 445, with 89 the daily average for Hawaii Island.

On Friday, Hawaii County had the worst test positivity rate in the state for the prior seven days, 8.0%, compared to 6.8% statewide.

As of late June, Norwegian Cruise Lines Hawaii had listed interisland cruises on its 3,236-passenger ship Pride of America starting in November, but now lists its interisland cruises starting on Jan. 22, 2022, with all interisland cruises displayed on its website sold out.

“Positivity rates and case counts will be considered, should any cruise lines look to discuss a port agreement as required by the CDC conditional sail order,” Kunishige said.

A Hawaii Island resident who booked an interisland cruise for late November recently told the Tribune-Herald NCL had rescheduled her for late February.

“At this time, we do not have port agreements with NCL for any of the ports under our control,” said Kunishige, who added NCL “cannot sail under the CDC conditional sail order without such an agreement.”

NCL didn’t respond to a July 28 email from the Tribune-Herald, but a June 23 letter to booked passengers from Katty Byrd, NCL vice president of guest services, said “launching and crewing our vessels require approximately 90 days” of lead time.

The letter stated its preparation for a return to cruising includes a “health and safety program, which is founded on three pillars: 1) Safety for guests and crew with vaccination requirements and enhanced health screening protocols; 2) Safety aboard with medical-grade air filtration, increased sanitation measures, enhanced medical resources, and responsible physical distancing; and 3) Safety ashore through the collaboration with land-based tour operator partners to ensure measures are extended to each destination.”

Kunishige said the islands are “not the focus of cruise activity at the moment,” and Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, said it’s not certain when cruise ships will again dock at local ports.

“We’re anxious to get our cruise industry back and moving, and once the CDC has everything lined up and cruise lines are ready to roll, as a destination we’re ready to accept them,” Birch said.

Royal Caribbean’s Ovation of the Seas docked last week in Ketchikan, Alaska, on a test cruise under the CDC’s conditional sail order, according to KRBD Radio in Ketchikan. Reportedly the largest cruise ship ever to visit Alaska, the Ovation can carry more than 4,000 passengers, but ferried slightly fewer than 600 nonpaying passengers for the COVID shakedown cruise to test pandemic protocols.

Frank Del Rio, president of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, NCL Hawaii’s parent company, said in a statement Friday the Norwegian Encore was set to depart Seattle Saturday for Alaska, “mark(ing) our first cruise in the United States in over 500 days.”

“We are ready and eager to welcome guests back onboard and continue to see incredible strength in our booking trends for future cruises,” Del Rio said. “Our team is working tirelessly to execute on our plan to return our full fleet to operation by April 2022 to capitalize on this unparalleled pent-up demand.”

Meanwhile, NCLH is embroiled in a court battle with the state of Florida over the state’s ban on “vaccine passports.”

According to Reuters, a lawyer for NCLH on Friday told a federal judge in Miami — the site of Norwegian’s corporate headquarters — the ban is intended “to score political points for one side in a raging debate over whether people should be vaccinated.”

Florida’s current law would prevent the cruise line from requiring customers to prove they’re vaccinated against COVID-19, and the state can levy a $5,000 fine for each passenger denied boarding because they didn’t provide proof of vaccination.

The company, which plans to start cruising out of Miami on Aug. 15, fears its promise to the CDC that at least 95% of passengers and crew members departing from Miami are vaccinated will be jeopardized by the vaccine passport ban.

The Carnival Mardi Gras docked Tuesday in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on its maiden cruise out of Port Canaveral, Fla., USA Today reported.

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“We are following news regarding the return to service of vessels in Miami and Alaska and will work with cruise operators and other stakeholders to ensure a safe return to service in Hawaiian waters when the time comes,” Kunishige said.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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