Cruise ships are launching in Europe, Asia and now Israel. What about the U.S.?

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The MSC Seaside, based in Miami since its christening in 2017, will begin sailing in Italy in May.
The MSC Seaside, based in Miami since its christening in 2017, will begin sailing in Italy in May. Photo Credit: Ivan Sarfatti
Johanna Jainchill
Johanna Jainchill

For the vast majority of North American cruise fans, the closest they've come to getting on an actual cruise ship over the last year was watching Meryl Streep and friends on a Queen Mary 2 crossing in December's HBO Max Film, "Let Them All Talk."

A handful of cruisers almost got a full sailing in on SeaDream Yacht Club's ship from Barbados, which cut short its first Caribbean cruise in November after a Covid-19 outbreak, and a few were on an UnCruise Adventures Alaska cruise in August, which was thwarted by a passenger's false positive test.

So it is bittersweet to see a U.S.-based line resume service, but not here. Royal Caribbean's newest ship, the Odyssey of the Seas, will launch in two months from Israel on sailings for vaccinated Israelis only. It will be Royal's second ship to launch since the global cruise shutdown; its first was the Quantum of the Seas from Singapore, and its inaugural season there has been so successful, the ship will stay there this summer instead of going to Alaska.

MSC Cruises is a European brand, but for fans of the line, seeing the MSC Seaside -- which has been based in Miami since it was christened there in 2017 -- be designated MSC's second ship to launch Med sailings this year is also a tough pill to swallow. The Seaside's move to the Med was always in the works, but it was supposed to make the crossing after a winter season in Fort Lauderdale. It now will sail from Italy starting in May. And it will join the MSC Grandiosa, which has carried more than 40,000 passengers since it launched in Italy in August. The cruises are limited to Europe residents.

Royal's Caribbean Group's two jointly owned lines, Hapag-Lloyd and Tui Cruises, also launched cruises in Europe and the Canary Islands last summer. And Carnival Corp.'s German brand Aida and Italian brand Costa have both been operating on and off since September.

Meanwhile, this month's one-year anniversary of the global cruise shutdown is being marked with the continuation of maddeningly slow progress as far as getting ships back in U.S. waters.

No cruise ship test sailings have been scheduled, the first major step in any ship's return to service from U.S. ports. And although Royal Caribbean International CEO Michael Bayley said last week that he expected technical specifications for those sailings "any day," Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio said just a few days later: "Could be a few days, could be a few weeks."

Canada's cruise ban, which now extends through February 2022, is likely to kill the big-ship Alaska cruise season if none of the suggested workarounds are put in place. 

The delays seem to be making cruise lines think beyond their bread and butter market. Royal had hinted last week that its next ship to launch may not be in the U.S., something Del Rio suggested as well.

The Odyssey will be Royal's first ship to offer cruises from Israel, which currently has the world's highest percentage of its population vaccinated. But even countries like Italy, Germany, Greece, Singapore, the Canary Islands and French Polynesia have been willing to work with cruise lines to enable ships to operate with protocols in place, something the U.S. and Canada have not.

Here's hoping the handful of small-ship cruises set to launch this year, on U.S. rivers in March and on coastal routes and Alaska later this spring, will go off without a hitch. Americans need a cruise story, IRL.

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