Bureaucratic intransigence in Ecuador has left some Celebrity Cruises passengers unsure of how their cruise bookings for trips to the Galapagos Islands this summer will be fulfilled.
The number of cruise visitors to the Galapagos is strictly regulated, and Celebrity has found itself without permits to board up to 16 passengers each week, forcing the line to scramble to offer alternatives.
"We're still selling, people are still sailing," said Rob Zeiger, global chief communications officer for Celebrity's parent, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.
But Zeiger said the bureaucratic speed bump has left one of its ships oversold, forcing some passengers to make adjustments.
Those adjustments include taking refunds, rebooking on future sailings or transferring bookings to one of two other ships that Celebrity operates in the environmentally vulnerable Galapagos.
The situation arose in June as Celebrity launched the 100-passenger Celebrity Flora. It needed authorizations, known as coupos, for each passenger. So Celebrity transferred the 100 coupos that had been assigned to its largest existing ship in the Galapagos, the Celebrity Xpedition.
To continue sailing the Xpedition, Celebrity sought to transfer coupos from its two smallest ships, the 48-passenger Celebrity Xploration and the 16-passenger Celebrity Xperience, to the Xpedition.
But authorities said Ecuadorian law did not permit the coupos from two ships to be combined on another vessel.
A May 24 decision from the director of the Galapagos National Park asserted, "This authority cannot extend an authorization for the replacement of Xperience and Xploration vessels for the Celebrity Xpedition vessel."
Since then, Celebrity has been operating the Xpedition as a 48-passenger ship instead of carrying the 64 passengers it had planned for.
Introducing a further complication, each ship in the Galapagos is owned by an Ecuadorian company to which the coupos are assigned.
"There's a lot of rules about Ecuadorian ownership and employment and supply chain," Zeiger said. "So there's an extra Ecuadorian bureaucratic layer compared to the way ships operate in other parts of the world."
He compared the process to buying an automobile: "If you're buying a used car, you can't really drive it until the title transfer processes. That's a little like what's happening here."
Because Celebrity expected the problem to be resolved, it has been notifying customers fairly close in about changes to their cruises.
"Right now, it's almost week by week," Zeiger said. "If we have oversold Xpedition, then we have to find something for the people who were oversold, give them alternatives. We don't think this is a long-term issue."
For guests who have been switched to same-week sailings on the Flora or the Xperience, compensation includes a 50% future cruise credit. For those who agree to a postponement, compensation includes a refund and a 100% future cruise credit, Zeiger said.
Further muddying the waters was a June 26 statement from the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment announcing that it had revoked the authorization for Celebrity Xpedition to sail in the Galapagos, "based on a technical report on impact analysis on ecosystems."
The statement was widely reported by the Ecuadorian media.
Zeiger offered no explanation for that statement, but he said that the Xpedition continues to sail and Celebrity is in compliance with all regulations in the Galapagos, including environmental ones.
Receipt of a set of written questions from Travel Weekly about the Celebrity Xpedition's license was acknowledged by the Environmental Ministry on July 12, but there had been no response at press time.
Because it previously carried 100 passengers, the Celebrity Xpedition has been modified so that its third deck of passenger cabins is no longer shown for sale on the ship's deck plans. Only the more desirable and spacious suites on Decks 4, 5 and 6 are open.
"The eventual goal is 64 [passengers] on Xpedition and we retire Xploration and Xperience," Zeiger said. "Until we can do this, however, Xpedition [cruises are] for sale with [a capacity of] 48, and Flora is for sale with 100."
Celebrity said that starting in August, the Xpedition will have an enhanced package of suite services that will include full in-suite dinner service, complimentary laundry service, unpacking assistance, an in-suite espresso machine, complimentary rain ponchos and use of marine binoculars, among other amenities.