Johanna Jainchill
Johanna Jainchill

Crystal Cruises' decision to relaunch North American cruises from Bahamian homeports in July was met with applause from many in the cruise and travel world. 

"Finally, we have a date to return to sailing," said Vicky Garcia, COO  of Cruise Planners. "Kudos to Crystal for creating a luxury, close-to-home experience for our travel advisors to sell, as this type of Bahamas cruise is different for the brand. We know these will sell out fast because of the pent-up consumer demand, our consistent recent growth in sales and the fact that Crystal has smaller vessels."

Mary Jean Tully, CEO of Tully Luxury Travel, Crystal's top producing agency for 25 years, said she was "thrilled." 

"I think it's a great idea," she added. "We've got clients jumping all over the chance and wanting to go."

Crystal's Bahamas season is scheduled to launch July 3 with seven-day, Bahamas-only sailings that will run until October, making it the latest line to bypass the CDC in looking for ways to gets its ships in the waters for North American clientele. During its most recent earnings call, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, too, hinted its restart program may be outside the U.S. And Royal Caribbean International earlier this year said it would base a ship in Barbados for the first time, the Grandeur of the Seas, starting in November. 

"That was a very smart move," said Rod McLeod, a former chief marketing officer at Royal Caribbean and currently an industry consultant. "No visas are required for Barbados for key markets like the U.K. and Europe, and it's very difficult to make moves equal to that and be as close to the U.S. core market."

Bookings indicate that McLeod was right. Royal Caribbean CEO Michael Bayley said that demand for the Grandeur out of Barbados "exceeded our expectations quite significantly" and that the line sold 25% of its inventory within a couple weeks.  

"There is a lot demand that's building up globally for vacations and cruise and for Royal Caribbean," he added.

It's that part that Royal Caribbean and now Crystal are banking on: North Americans want to cruise, and if their home countries continue to make it difficult to cruise in U.S. and Canadian waters, cruise lines will consider launching elsewhere.  

The destinations that the cruise lines are working with are only too happy to host these ships. Dionisio D'Aguilar, the Bahamian minister of tourism and aviation, said the agreement with Crystal "may very well prove to be the tipping point" in recovery for the islands' pandemic-ravaged tourism industry. And when Royal launched Barbados, the island's minister of tourism, Lisa Cummins, said that "after the year the industry and region have had, this is a shining light to look forward to."

Industry watchers will recall that another luxe line tried to be the first to resume Caribbean cruises during the pandemic: SeaDream Yacht Club launched seven-day sailings from Barbados last November. That experiment infamously ended with a Covid-19 breakout that cut short its very first cruise halfway through; the Norway-based line canceled the rest of the season.  

But that seems like decades ago in Covid-time. There were no vaccines, and rapid testing was far less accurate than it is now. Crystal, for its part, is mandating that all passengers and crew be inoculated against the virus, betting that by July almost any North American in its target age bracket will have access to a vaccine. (Virgin Voyages, too, is going the all-vaccination route.) And by the time Royal's cruises launch in November, it is very possible the U.S. will have achieved herd immunity. 

Of course, the hope is that certainly by November, and possibly even July, cruise lines will have launched from U.S. ports. But what is nice about these Bahamas and Barbados cruises is that there is a greater level of certainty: In the Caribbean there is no CDC-style Conditional Sailing Order, with its mandate for test sailings and factors such as what the ports are required to have in place in the case of an outbreak, attached to them. 

Given how slowly the CDC is moving to get cruise ships back in U.S. waters, it's very likely Crystal and Royal won't be the last lines to launch from ports just outside our borders. 

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