Norwegian Cruise Line restarts U.S. cruising with confidence

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T0809NCLRESTART_AW_HR [Arnie Weissmann]
Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio (left) and former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb (center) listen as Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Harry Sommer describes improvements made to the NCL fleet during the pandemic. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

SEATTLE -- How does Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio feel on the day before the first NCLH ship sets sail in the U.S.?

"I haven't felt this good since March 9, 2020," he said, referring to the day the U.S. State Department issued a warning against travel by cruise ship. 

Cruise deck ship [Credit: Virrage Images/Shutterstock.com]
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Del Rio made the remarks at a media panel titled "The Great Cruise Comeback," held to celebrate the departure of the Norwegian Encore on an Alaska itinerary on Aug. 7.

At times, listening to the panel (which also included NCL CEO Harry Sommer and former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb, among others), one might think the overarching message was "safety is the new fun." The focus of most comments was about the lengths the company has gone to over the past 515 days to set sail safely again.

But Sommer made sure fun was not off the agenda. "How is the onboard experience going to be different?" he said. "It's better. We've refurbished ships, upgraded menus and increased staffing." He noted that refinements were even made on the Encore, which was inaugurated only a few months before the CDC halted cruising.

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The panel did not shy away from talk about the delta variant. The line's long-stated insistence on 100% vaccinated guests and crew and antigen tests for everyone boarding is a model that "many companies and governments" have embraced after the variant appeared, Del Rio said. "Being aboard an NCLH ship is the safest vacation I can think of.

"You know this little feud we have with the state of Florida?" he added, referencing the company's challenge to Gov. Ron DeSantis' executive order banning companies from requiring proof of vaccination. "We had three choices. Break the law, which we would never do, accept it and cruise in a less safe way, or challenge the law. So that's what we did.

"We're confident in our position and will do all humanly possible to reassure our guests that they are going to be safe. Nothing will get in the way of guest safety, including politics. We look forward to a positive finding [from the court] that will allow us to sail from Florida."

Asked whether, on a fully vaccinated ship, it was possible for a large-scale delta variant outbreak to occur, Gottlieb said, "Anything is possible."

But he added that the vaccine is protective against serious disease even from a delta variant infection, and that data from Israel indicates that vaccinated people who do become infected with the delta variant are far less likely to transmit the virus, except within families. That's because, although initially virus levels will be high, they decline quickly, shortening the period when an infected individual is contagious.

"It's probably the case that vaccinated people are not becoming super-spreaders," he said. "Data from Israel supports that."

If all goes well, it is the line's intent to raise the occupancy levels (currently at 60%) to 100% in 60 days, Del Rio said. "2021 is a transition year," he added. 

In response to a question from a reporter in Asia who was listening on a live feed, Sommer said the company hoped to restart cruising in Australia, New Zealand and some Asian ports by the end of January or beginning of February.

Although Gottlieb spoke primarily about health-related issues, he noted, "We're not going to return to normalcy until we can reclaim the things that are important to us."

For Sommer, both personally and professionally, that's clearly the case where cruising is concerned. When he had gone for a jog along the Seattle waterfront that morning, he said he saw the Encore sail into port. "I cried a little," he confessed. "And that's hard to do when you're jogging."

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