Sometimes, superheroes wear suits.
Cruising has been embattled in the United States for over a year. The victim of double standards on many fronts, it’s been dealt blow after blow by mainstream media reporting and ill-informed public opinion, bans and delays and impossible standards from the CDC, and now being sold out by a Florida politician who was a vocal, erstwhile supporter.
But there’s one industry leader who isn’t afraid to take a stand. And for the sake of cruising, the rest of the industry needs to get behind Norwegian Cruise Line Holding’s outspoken Chairman/ CEO Frank Del Rio.
Del Rio has repeatedly stepped up to face down the enemies of the safe resumption of cruise travel in US waters, and made it clear he’s ready to back up words with deed in a way that could transform cruising in North America – especially if other cruise companies join forces.
Battles on the Home Front
Since last fall, increasingly desperate calls from the industry and American homeports for the CDC to issue specific guidance to allow cruising to begin in the U.S. under October’s Conditional Sail Order, appeared to fall on deaf ears.
Finally, Del Rio broke ranks with behind the scenes negotiations, and went public with a challenge to the CDC in April, providing the federal health authority with a plan to resume fully vaccinated cruising on July 4th.
In a letter to the CDC and subsequent media blitz, Open Jaw reported that Del Rio demanded, “I challenge you to tell me of another venue anywhere that has this kind of iron-clad health and safety protocols in place … cruise ships will de facto become the safest place on earth.”
Del Rio’s in-your-face move outspokenness is credited with helping force the CDC’s hand to finally issue specific guidance that would allow cruising to resume “this summer” under its Conditional Sail Order.
At first glance, it was a win, finally connecting CDC’s own travel safety guidance for vaccinated persons with safe cruising. Ships that meet vaccination thresholds can skip onerous test sailings to resume cruising.
But the battle wasn’t over.
In the fine print, the guidance nearly defeats the resumption of cruising before it starts. Where airlines are no longer even blocking off middle seats, the CDC expects cruise pax to wear masks, too, then goes on to not just ban buffets, but stipulates guests must don and remove masks between sips of cocktails or bites of food. Guests may not independently explore ports of call, but must join heavily-restricted cruise line shore excursions. And they’ve virtual guaranteed riots on the lido deck as guests compete to snag the few loungers remaining once they’re spaced 6-feet apart.
Del Rio wasn’t having any of the double standards being placed on cruising.
On an earnings call late last week, he reportedly declared himself “outraged”, and Cruise Week quotes him blasting the CDC’s, “pronouncements that even though everyone on board would be vaccinated, in between bites of your meals and in between sips of your beverage, you have to put on your mask, take off your mask.
“So that to me is just preposterous… 70% of American adults will be vaccinated by the beginning of the third quarter.”
And almost immediately, Norwegian’s chief made headlines again, flexing his muscle against an erstwhile supporter of the resumption of cruising.
Florida, and especially its governor Ron DeSantis, had been among the most vocal jurisdictions pushing for cruising to resume, even going so far as to sue the CDC to allow cruising in the top U.S. cruise state.
But at the same time, de Santis’ political stance against enforcing many COVID-19 safety protocols, runs afoul of the very thing that will make cruising possible: vaccinations.
Signing a bill last week that bans businesses from demanding proof of vaccination has made him an opponent in the race to return to the water.
And again, as CNN reported late last week, it’s Del Rio to the rescue, announcing that Florida’s law could force NCLH to “move its ships elsewhere.” And he’s not afraid to make a move.
“At the end of the day, cruise ships have motors, propellers and rudders, and God forbid 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 a ship that otherwise would have gone to Florida,” Del Rio is reported as saying during Thursday’s earnings call.
We don’t know yet who will blink first, but Florida’s governor has a lot of political points at stake in a state where the cruise industry is worth billions in jobs and revenues.
So Del Rio likely has the power here and he knows it, saying he believes federal requirements for vaccines will win the day against a state law.
It’s not like other cruise line executives have been silent, but they’ve largely kept negotiations behind the scenes, even as we’ve watched the rest of the world open up to bubble and offshore cruises, embrace full vaccination as a cornerstone of safe and enjoyable resumption of cruising, and seen the cruise industry shockingly leapfrog over the US to begin its restart internationally.
The Canadian travel industry has a stake in this too. Most Canadians still need to fly to catch their cruise, and theoretically a flight to get a cruise that embarks from the Bahamas or St. Maarten isn’t much different from a flight to board a cruise from Miami or Port Canaveral. But the health of the largest cruise market in the world, a short haul flight from the majority of the Canadian population, is important to the entire industry globally.
It’s time for the rest of the travel industry to make it clear they have Frank Del Rio’s back in this battle for cruising in America.