Alaska, Hawaii, Bermuda on NCL’s wish list, if CDC gives the nod

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So said President and CEO Harry Sommer, considering the line already has two Caribbean-based ships in its non-US restart for the summer season.

NCL normally sails to Bermuda from New York and Boston, and Sommer would be ‘thrilled’ to get one of those going, along with even one ship in Alaska (the line typically fields four). ‘And Hawaii’s always a very popular itinerary,’ he added.

In a wide-ranging interview Tuesday, Sommer addressed new and future deployment, the CDC, vaccination issues, protocols he considers ‘impenetrable’ and more.

Alaska unlikely but …

Sommer clarified NCL hasn’t spoken with Bermuda’s government. And Alaska looks unlikely, but he’s not giving up yet. He still sees three (long) shots: As Canada ramps up vaccinations, perhaps the country would reconsider allowing ships in mid- to late summer, or ‘technical’ calls at Victoria or Vancouver. And there may be a chance for the US to grant a temporary waiver for the Passenger Vessel Services Act.

‘We’ve not made huge progress on any fronts,’ Sommer admitted. ‘It’s hard to push forward on hypothetical situations. We need to get the CDC closer to a yes so we can have more substantive conversations with Canada or other parts of the US government on one of those three options.’

If NCL could start in Alaska by early to mid-July, he ‘absolutely’ thinks it’s worth going — the season stretches until late September/early October.

Hawaii

Hawaii has reopened for other types of tourism but requires a pre-arrival COVID test. Sommer has no issue with that; getting tested is no longer an obstacle for Americans. He sees the odds for Hawaii as better than Alaska.

But it all hangs on the CDC.

‘We think we’ve laid out a reasonable and compelling case,’ Sommer said.

‘Maybe in a week, we’ll hear back from the CDC and perhaps they’ll have a counterproposal, perhaps they’ll have thoughts to share with us and we’ll continue the dialogue.’

On Friday, when the agency said vaccinated Americans can travel ‘at low risk to themselves’ in the US and abroad, Sommer’s reaction was ‘We’re in. We’d be happy to offer travel to fully vaccinated people on our ships.’

‘Impenetrable, impeccable’ protocols

He’s convinced cruising can be one of the safest pursuits.

‘I don’t know of any other leisure activity that requires full vaccination, testing when you arrive, testing when you leave, masks, social distancing, increased sanitation, hospital-grade filters, medical facilities on site 24 hours, with ICU beds and quarantine facilities.’

Those are just the highlights, ‘Plus, we guarantee safe passage home. You get sick on our ship with COVID, we’ll put you in a hospital. We’ll pay your bills, and we make sure you get home …

‘We think what we’ve set up is impenetrable, impeccable and will produce the absolute safest experience out there.’

Vaccines

The pace of vaccination stateside is ‘heartening.’ President Biden today moved up the deadline for states to make all adults eligible for a vaccine to April 19, from May 1 previously.

NCL requiring vaccination for all departures through October means no kids for now. Families are a key market ‘but it has to be safety first,’ Sommer said, adding the hope that by Nov. 1, the situation will have changed.

Currently, 16- and 17-year-olds can be vaccinated, and Pfizer hopes 12- to 15-year-olds will be able to get the vaccine before school starts in the fall.

Crew jabs

CDC’s recent guidance included stepping up crew testing. NCL is going further by ensuring all its crew are vaccinated. Sommer said that should be achievable by May or June for the first ships back in service.

Whether governments of the destinations to be visited are helping and if that was a factor in their selection he couldn’t say, only that: ‘While a consideration, it wasn’t a big one,’ adding: ‘I’m confident we’ll be able to get our crew vaccinated.’

Vaccination politics

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has threatened legislation to stop private companies from mandating vaccination. Sommer, who praised the governor’s support of the cruise industry, said it’s unclear how DeSantis’ plan would apply to international travel and whether he would carve out an exception for cruises.

‘The governor and our interests are aligned in that restarting cruising in Florida would be safe and a boost to the Florida economy,’ he said, ‘and I’m confident we could work together to find a solution.’

Bubble tours mandatory, to start

For the first five weeks — through August — of NCL’s newly announced offshore cruises in the Caribbean and Greek Isles, passengers have to take a company-organized excursion in order to go ashore. This is to keep things as safe as can be and gives more time for people in the destinations to get vaccinated.

Dominican Republic’s long-term potential

Whether NCL would continue Caribbean cruises from non-US homeports long-term or move the ships back stateside when that becomes possible depends on demand. Sommer said Punta Cana and Montego Bay are the top two Caribbean destinations for Americans, with ample airlift.

Island-based homeports have the advantage of providing deeper Caribbean access. In that respect, sailing from the Dominican Republic’s east coast is like starting from nearby San Juan. From La Romana, the port near Punta Cana, NCL’s cruises will visit Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Maarten and Antigua.

‘We think there’s a lot of potential for the Dominican Republic,’ Sommer said. He’d like to see NCL continuing from there, particularly as the country is developing several cruise ports, including Puerto Plata.

Jamaica, though, is already busy and it would be hard to base a ship in Montego Bay long-term because of limited berthing. NCL’s weeklong Montego Bay cruises will visit its private island in Belize, Harvest Caye, along with Roatán, Cozumel and Ocho Rios.

Winter from Athens?

When it comes to Greece homeporting, Piraeus is an established base for NCL’s summer Greek Isles program. What’s new, Sommer said, is the potential for winter itineraries from there to the Holy Land.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb’s added role

Early in the pandemic, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings identified former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb as ‘bright, articulate, knowledgeable, highly experienced’ — just the man to help the company tackle COVID-19.

At same time, Royal Caribbean Group had reached out to Gov. Mike Leavitt, former US secretary of health and human services, to do the same thing. The companies joined forces to form the Healthy Sail Panel, co-chaired by Gottlieb and Leavitt.

As announced Monday, Gottlieb will now be chairing NCL’s new SailSAFE Global Health and Wellness Council.

The Healthy Sail Panel hasn’t been disbanded. Sommer explained: ‘It is a good, fruitful partnership. We now want to have our own brand-specific set of experts to operationalize the Healthy Sail Panel recommendations … having independent experts to help guide us along will be critical to our success.’

‘Embark’ on April 15

NCL’s ‘Embark’ documentary series continues on April 15 with a behind-the-scenes look at the myriad things it takes to safely start sailing again, covering the port aspect, food handling, setting up safe entertainment and even details like commissioning masks for guests from a uniforms supplier.

The show will air at 8 p.m. EDT April 15 at www.ncl.com/embark.



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