Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH) brands could start their test sailings in early January, CEO Frank Del Rio said during an earnings call with analysts Tuesday.
As part of the CDC's conditional sailing order, the framework that replaces the No Sail Order, all cruise ships must conduct test sailings prior to resuming commercial operations to show their protocols successfully mitigate the risk of Covid-19 spread to crew, passengers and communities.
Del Rio said that while other lines might launch those sailings in December, NCLH will wait.
"This is not a race for us," he said. "We want to get this 100% right. We're stressing flawless execution. There's still a lot to learn about the order and the nuances of how to execute the order and how to implement the 74 recommendations [of the Healthy Sail Panel] seamlessly, along with the framework that the CDC laid out. And those are complex issues."
Del Rio said that while the CDC framework "allows us to take the first definitive steps towards the recovery process," there is a still "a long road to full recovery ahead of us with many uncertainties."
While the CDC's order is what Del Rio called "step one," issues like plentiful airlift and open ports are among the many issues that have to be sorted for cruising to come back full force. "There are a lot of obstacles to overcome," he said, but he added, "We're prepared, we have the liquidity, we're going to get over this."
He called the news of the successful Pfizer vaccine trials this week "a significant milestone and likely the first of many breakthroughs to come on the vaccine front."
Given the CDC's latest directive and the current state of the pandemic, Del Rio said he expects NCLH's full fleet -- the company owns Norwegian Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania Cruises -- to be and up and running in six to nine months.
"I look at 2021 as a transition year," he said. "I believe we will have our entire fleet up and running sometime in latter half of '21 so that 2022 becomes the first year since 2019 that we can operate the entire fleet for the full year. 2022 is the road to normalization, and 2023 is normalization."
Del Rio said that bookings continue to be strong for the line, especially Africa, Asia, the Mediterranean and the Baltic region.
And contrary to what he called the perception that "the more mature cruiser is reluctant to travel," NCLH has seen the opposite, with its older guests demonstrating a "continued appetite for upscale luxury travel, even for long, exotic cruises."