In March, as the cruise industry's frustration with the CDC reached a fever pitch, the cruise lines began scheduling cruises for Americans just outside U.S. borders, from countries such as the Bahamas, St. Maarten, Jamaica and Bermuda.
The sailings gave Americans itineraries they could actually book, departing from places that, for most, were no further to fly to than ports in Florida. It also created a narrative seized upon by politicians and travel associations that were lobbying the CDC to allow cruising to resume in U.S. waters: Americans are going to cruise this summer from everywhere but here, robbing U.S. ports of the millions of dollars in revenue that cruising generates every year.
In its most recent earnings call, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings chief Frank Del Rio warned that if those sailings did well, singling out cruises from the Dominican Republic, "Who knows? That vessel might prove to be so profitable there that it never returns back to U.S. waters, which would be one of the economic casualties of this prolonged CDC-induced suspension."
At the time he said that the line's two ships based in Caribbean ports, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, were doing "better than expected," especially given their compressed booking window and the fact that summer is not high season for Caribbean cruising.
But it appears now that for at least some of those ships, better than expected wasn't good enough. Royal Caribbean International canceled its Vision of the Seas sailings from Bermuda (although technically outside of the Caribbean, Bermuda is very much part of the offshore cruising trend), and Norwegian Cruise Line canceled the Norwegian Gem from the Dominican Republic and the Norwegian Joy season from Montego Bay, Jamaica. So far, the other ships based in the Caribbean are staying put, but quite a few travel advisors say that, overall, the sailings have not been an easy sell.
One issue is simple: the itineraries were set very late for cruise departures, giving people only a few months' notice to make plans. The ships also require adult passengers to be vaccinated, and when the itineraries were first launched, U.S. vaccination rates were growing but still low, which may have contributed to a hesitation to book. And in the months since the itineraries were announced, the CDC has relaxed some restrictions, making a U.S. cruise restart in July a reality.
In canceling the Joy and the Gem, Norwegian said that it was related to needing crew for its Alaska operations launching this summer.
Some cruise lines have reported success with their Caribbean sailings. Crystal Cruises said its Bahamas sailings were very popular when they launched in March, notching the luxe line its best booking day on record.
Valerie Dorsey, of Cruise Planners in Royal Palm Beach, Fla., is flying to Nassau in July to get on a ship "so I can have firsthand knowledge to share with the clients to alleviate any fears."
"I haven't had any clients who want to fly to the Caribbean to get on the ships docked over there, as of now," she said, "even though I am sending emails and telling them about it."
Gary Smith, a Dream Vacations franchisee, also said there has been little demand among his clientele for the cruises starting outside the U.S.
"There's been some interest from clients on the East Coast," he said, "not tremendous and certainly not what any of us hoped for. And there's almost no interest in those alternative departures, even in the Caribbean, from the West Coast."
Both Smith and Dorsey said that most people are still booking 2022 or late 2021 cruises, expecting there to be more certainty.
Anthony Hamawy, president of Cruise.com, said that the company has sold most of the cruises launching abroad this summer, but he said that judging from the rate decreases specifically leading up to the Bermuda cancellation, "the demand wasn't sufficient to support the sailing."
"It seems like Bermuda going back into quarantine [in April] and with the CDC's labeling it as a high-risk destination, the demand was impacted," he said.