Frustrated with the CDC, Norwegian CEO says Caribbean homeports could be permanent

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The Norwegian Gem will begin sailing from Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic in August.
The Norwegian Gem will begin sailing from Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic in August.

Islands where cruise ships are positioned to restart this summer in the Caribbean could end up becoming permanent homeports, Frank Del Rio, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH), said during the company's earnings call today.

Del Rio, who had strong words for the CDC's continued ban on cruising from U.S. waters, said that the line's two ships based in Caribbean ports in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica "are doing better than expected."

"Especially given that we introduced them only a month ago, and the booking window is very compressed," he said, adding that the ships are "filling up quickly."

• Related: Norwegian says a restart of summer cruises from the U.S. could be in jeopardy

On April 6, NCLH's Norwegian Cruise Line said it would return to service with three ships this summer, including the Norwegian Joy launching weeklong cruises from Montego Bay, Jamaica, starting Aug. 7 and the Norwegian Gem  from Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, on Aug. 15.

Del Rio noted that summer is low season for Caribbean cruising, even on ships out of South Florida, so the vessels were not expected to be high-producing in terms of yield.

"We would have preferred to start those vessels in Alaska or in Europe," he said. "We couldn't, so the next best thing was to start new homeports."

Frank Del Rio
Frank Del Rio

So far, NCLH is "very encouraged, especially with the vessel out of the Dominican Republic," said Del Rio, noting that the destination has very good airlift to the U.S. and is the No. 1 Caribbean destination for Americans.

"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."

Del Rio took the opportunity to assail the CDC's continued ban on cruising, even as hotels, airlines and casinos are all up and running.

"We're perplexed, flabbergasted, outraged," he said, adding that the CDC's Conditional Sailing Order is "very difficult to comply with."

For example, he said, among the CDC's requirements for cruise ship passengers is that they must wear face masks onboard all the time, only lifting them to take bites or sips of food and drink, which Del Rio said makes no sense, especially on a ships like NCLH's that will have a 100% of passengers and crew vaccinated.

• Related:CDC alters rules on test sailings

"It's preposterous and not in the spirit of where the country is heading," he said, later adding, "We just need to get started. We need to get all these ridiculous regulations, this overreach, eliminated."

Del Rio said the rest of the world also has to open up to cruising.

"It's not just the CDC," he said. "The rest of the world has got to open up, as well. The rest of Europe has to open up, Asia has to open, South America has to open up. It's a global industry -- cruise companies visit 500 ports around the world, and only a handful are open today. The risk is how quickly the world can return to normal."

Del Rio also cited another reason that could drive ships from Florida ports: Governor Ron DeSantis' April 2 executive order to ban the use of digital health passports or forbidding businesses to prohibit entry based on vaccination status, which is part of NCLH's return to service plan. 

"At the end of the day, cruise ships have motors, propellers and rudders," Del Rio said. "And [if] we can't operate in the state of Florida for whatever reason, then there are other states that we do operate from. And we can operate from the Caribbean for ships that otherwise would have gone to Florida. We certainly hope it doesn't come to that. Everyone wants to operate out of Florida. It's a very lucrative market. It's close drive market. But it is an issue. We can't ignore it. And we hope that everyone is pushing in the same direction, which is we want to resume cruising in a safe manner, especially at the beginning."

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