On June 26, the Celebrity Edge became the first big cruise ship to embark from a U.S. port with passengers onboard in more than 15 months. Richard Fain, CEO of parent company Royal Caribbean Group, was on the cruise from Port Everglades and spoke to news editor Johanna Jainchill about how the industry finally got to set sail.
Q: How did you overcome what had been such minimal communication with the CDC?
A: There was communication: a lot of paperwork, a huge number of details. But there was no dialogue. It was very much a one-way communication. I think a few things overcame it. One is our experience [cruising] overseas. We simply had so much data, that at some point, the CDC couldn't ignore it. And I think there was so much suffering that it caused so many people whose livelihood depended on cruising. The amount of pain and suffering that it caused by shutting down an entire industry simply reached a crescendo that they couldn't ignore. And there was new leadership, and as the vaccines came out and as our capabilities with contact tracing, testing, etc, became so much better than anything on land, all of a sudden it became relatively apparent that what they initially thought was a disadvantage with cruise ships, i.e., that they were self-contained, were actually advantages given the improvements in the science.
Q: You said the global regulatory environment has become more foggy as opposed to impenetrable. How so?
A: Everybody's struggling to get it right. There is no perfect answer. It's often a combination of regulations. I may say, I'd rather focus more on the vaccine. And you may say, I'd rather focus more on the testing, and neither of us is wrong. It's just a little bit different. Some areas have higher prevalence than others and therefore need to be more careful. Some areas have higher vaccination rates and can be a little more confident. It's not that one group is being more difficult than another or more cautious than another. It's just, there are many ways to skin a cat. But it is confusing when you're asked to comply with the rules of 50 different jurisdictions.
Q: Right, like on this cruise, we can roam freely in parts of Costa Maya, not at all in Cozumel and the Bahamas is open. Is it difficult to communicate why that is to the guests?
A: We don't try to communicate "why" because that's really usurping the government. But the government of Mexico, partially because of the prevalence in the country, partially because of the ubiquity of vaccines, they have reached this conclusion. Regardless of what the country requires, we also have our own requirements. And regardless of what the country says, we will require people who are not vaccinated to go on curated tours.
Q: There are no unvaccinated adults on this ship. Your strategy of trying to discourage unvaccinated people from cruising seems to work.
A: We want everybody to be safe, and we have put in place the protocols to ensure that. That is easier for people who are vaccinated. And I am a believer that the vaccination is good for the individual and good for our society. But we also will accommodate, in Florida, those who don't want to do that. But obviously we have to put in place the protocols to protect others.
Q: You expect most of your brands' fleets to launch by year's end. Will some markets take longer?
A: There are countries that have taken a different approach that may be slower, either from our point of view or theirs. Australia and New Zealand are an example of that. Canada was slower about getting the vaccines distributed. There will be special cases. I think, overall, we expect the bulk of our fleet to be back before the end of the year. But some ships won't operate the same itinerary as before.
Q: The travel advisor community loved the videos you made for them throughout the pandemic, which were really unique. What started that?
A: [Royal] sent me a portable movie kit. I did one and people seemed to like it. So I just kept doing it. I did it at home and [my wife], Colleen, was the camera operator. I got a fair amount of "this is helpful" from travel agents. And I found it helpful for me. The videos take no time to do, the preparation takes a lot of time: What do you say? What are you trying to communicate? I found it gave me a sense of connection to the travel advisors, which made me feel good. So it was probably more for me than for them.