Norwegian Cruise Line will restart sailing from outside U.S.

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The Norwegian Gem in 2015. The ship is scheduled to sail from Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, on Aug. 15.
The Norwegian Gem in 2015. The ship is scheduled to sail from Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, on Aug. 15.

Norwegian Cruise Line became the latest line to plan a return to service from ports outside of the U.S., with three ships launching this summer from Greece, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. 

The first ship will be the Norwegian Jade from Athens, offering seven-day Greek Isles cruises beginning July 25. The Norwegian Joy follows with weeklong cruises from Montego Bay, Jamaica, starting Aug. 7, and the Norwegian Gem will sail from Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, on Aug. 15. 

Related: NCLH's Frank Del Rio makes his case for cruise restart on 'Mad Money'

The resumption is part of a two-prong plan to restart operations, with the company also requesting yesterday that it be able to resume sailing from the U.S. starting July 4

All guests onboard will be required to have the Covid-19 vaccine, with no exemption for those who are too young to get vaccinated, a requirement parent company Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings put in place for its three brands yesterday. This is a departure from what Royal Caribbean Group's brands are doing in their relaunch from the Caribbean, Europe and Israel, where adults must be fully vaccinated while those under the age of 18 can sail with negative test results.

Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Harry Sommer talks about the line’s return to service plans on a Zoom interview.
Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Harry Sommer talks about the line’s return to service plans on a Zoom interview.

Norwegian CEO Harry Sommer said the vaccine mandate is currently only in place through Oct. 31 and that the company felt it was both the best way to offer the safest experience it could and make the strongest case to the CDC about resuming service in the U.S. He also said that he was hopeful about Pfizer's recent announcement that it would ask the FDA for approval to give the vaccine to 12- to 15-year-olds.  

"We're happy to start slowly, and we recognize that it's unfortunate that perhaps there'll be some families with children that can't join our cruises, but we really feel an obligation to our guests and our crew and the places we visit to do this absolutely as safe as we can," Sommer said. "And at the same time, we believe this provides a compelling argument to the CDC to allow us to start in the U.S., and we certainly wouldn't want to have different protocols for our ships starting in the U.S. and in other parts of the world. For us, safety is universal, and we want one set of protocols for our entire fleet." 

Norwegian's Caribbean itineraries will each feature two days at sea and four ports of call. Passengers embarking from Montego Bay on the Norwegian Joy will visit Harvest Caye, the company's private destination in Belize; Roatan, Honduras; Cozumel, Mexico; and Ocho Rios, Jamaica. From Punta Cana the ship will visit Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Maarten and Antigua. 

Passengers on the Greece sailings will visit a new destination every day, with eight to nine hours in port. The ship will visit Olympia and the islands of Crete, Rhodes, Mykonos, Corfu and Santorini.  

Guests on Norwegian's sailings In July and August will only be able to disembark the ship on Norwegian's shore excursions.  

"Come September, as things continue to evolve and we have a really good experience on our ships, we believe that we'll be able to allow guests to go off the ships on their own," Sommer said. "Keeping in mind that everyone's going to be 100% vaccinated, part of the hesitation in July and August is we also want to make sure that the majority of the population in the places we're visiting are vaccinated, as well, and hope to know there's a path to get there in the places we're visiting by September."

Sommer said that the timeline for the relaunch is in part because the company is still hopeful that it will be launching ships in the U.S. in July, which NCLH CEO Frank Del Rio requested of the CDC in yesterday's letter. 

"We're trying to start up ships in the U.S., as well, so we don't necessarily want to front-run that experience," Sommer said of the Greece and Caribbean relaunch dates. "We know we can start up these three ships because we already have the approval from the governments of Greece, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, along with all the ports that we're visiting on these ships. We don't yet have approval from the United States."

In accordance with the NCLH resumption plan released yesterday, Norwegian will launch the three ships at 60% capacity. Sommer said that with everyone onboard vaccinated, the cruise experience should not be much different than what it used to be. 

"Every activity that you normally can do, you'll be able to do," he said, with the exception of buffets, which will not be self-service. "I don't think anything is going to be radically different from a guest experience perspective, outside things like enhanced sanitation, daily temperature checks and Covid tests. The basic cruise experience -- the dining, entertainment, the lounges, the bars, the racetrack, the hot tubs, the pool, the virtual reality -- those things should be the same. In fact, in a world where only 60% of people are onboard, it might actually be a little better." 

According to Sommer, the 60% occupancy might not last long, given the vaccine requirement, and "assuming everything goes okay on these 60% cruises," he said. 

The homeports chosen for the relaunch said the ships would help boost their tourism economy. Jamaica's minister of tourism, Edmund Bartlett, said in a statement that he is "confident that this important partnership will aid in our effort to rebuild our tourism sector and boost our economy overall. Jamaica is ready for the return of cruise tourism, and we have robust protocols in place to ensure a safe, seamless and secure experience." 

Norwegian is giving away 500 cabins on those initial sailings to travel advisors who book cruises on the Norwegian Joy, Gem or Jade through Nov. 7, to both experience the cruises and demonstrate the line's "appreciation for their trust in us," Norwegian said. For every cabin sold through May 7 with embarkation dates through Nov. 7, travel advisors will receive one entry for a complimentary cruise up to seven nights in a balcony cabin. The line is also offering fans the opportunity to watch the cruise line make its final preparations to resume service with its docuseries, "Embark -- The Series," premiering April 15 at 8 p.m. at www.ncl.com/embark and on Facebook.

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