Frank Del Rio: Norwegian Cruise Line is 'hopeful' on Alaska cruise season

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A Norwegian Cruise Line shop docked at Icy Strait Point in Alaska.
A Norwegian Cruise Line shop docked at Icy Strait Point in Alaska.

Frank Del Rio, the CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH), expressed optimism Thursday that there could still be an Alaska cruise season this year, and he said that so far the company is not canceling its Alaska sailings.

"It's difficult to predict the outcome," he said, adding that the company is "encouraged" that various government officials "are trying to do their best."

Like other lines, Del Rio said that NCLH had suspended taking Alaska bookings, "but we do hold out some hope that the initiatives led by the Alaska delegation can open up Alaska for 2021."

That same day, top-ranking members of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure urged Canada to find a way to allow cruise ships to call at Canadian ports, and members of Alaska's congressional delegation earlier this month implored Canada to reconsider the ban, calling it "unacceptable." Canada this month extended its ban on cruise carrying more than 100 people for one year, until February 2022.

Citing the significance of tourism to Alaskan communities, Del Rio said two years without cruise "will be difficult for them."

"We're hopeful and cautiously optimistic," he said. "There are a lot of hoops to jump through, both on the Canadian side and -- let's face it, we can't operate today in in U.S., Alaskan waters."

On Wednesday, Holland America Line and Princess Cruises said they had canceled 2021 cruises that depart from or end in Canadian ports, which would eliminate cruises that homeport in Vancouver, British Columbia. 

The restart and the CDC

Del Rio was a bit less optimistic on CDC timing than Royal Caribbean International CEO Michael Bayley, who said Monday during Royal Caribbean Group's earnings call that the CDC might send technical information necessary for cruise lines to conduct test cruises "any day soon."

Del Rio's expectations were more tempered.

"I won't label it as a few days, because I simply don't know," he said of the CDC guidance. "Could be a few days, could be a few weeks."

Del Rio said that discussions with the CDC indicate that there may be some flexibility on the 60-day window that the current conditional sailing order requires between test cruise results and the start of revenue sailings. Based on those conversations, Del Rio said, "It's not a hard 60 days -- I think it could be less. How much less? I don't know. We haven't received that kind of specificity on these guidelines."

The cruise company said its end-of-May restart date is based on its belief that, from the moment it gets the green light, it will need 90 days to get its ships ready for service. Based on that, "we owe it to travel agents, consumers, our own employees and crew," to cancel any cruises within that 90-day window. 

Echoing comments from the Royal Caribbean earnings call, Del Rio said that decisions around the industry's restart will be based on the progression of the virus.

"At the end of the day, I think the prevalence of the disease, in our own country and around the world, will be the greatest indicator of when we can resume cruising," he said. "And the prevalence is dropping. And we believe based on all the experts that we talk to that we will see a continuation of the significant drop in cases as we near spring, summer; as we continue to vaccinate over 1.5 million Americans per day; as more people get infected and recover. All those things point in a direction where the prevalence should drop considerably and give us a better opportunity to restart operations."

A Norwegian Cruise Line ship in Greece. Company CEO Frank Del Rio hinted that its first ship to return to service might do so outside of the U.S.
A Norwegian Cruise Line ship in Greece. Company CEO Frank Del Rio hinted that its first ship to return to service might do so outside of the U.S.

Del Rio also predicted that if sailings resume in June or July, NCLH's 28-ship fleet could be 100% operational by the end of 2021, based on putting about one ship per week back into service.

And like Royal Caribbean, Del Rio hinted that the first NCLH ship to enter service may not be in the U.S.

"Depending on the timing of our return to service, our vessels could return in certain regions before others," he said, adding that in the peak summer season, 17 of the company's 28 ships are in Europe. "Seasonality will likely play a key role in the initial deployment of our vessels."

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