TORONTO — Travel agents can book summer and fall cruises with confidence, says a leading expert on COVID-19.
During a virtual briefing yesterday, Jan. 13, hosted by Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings’ President and CEO, Frank Del Rio, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Chairman of NCLH’s SailSAFE Global Health and Wellness Council, assured travel agents that the summer and fall seasons will most likely see “very low prevalence” of COVID-19.
“I think people are going to want to get back to doing the things that they enjoy. I think it’s going to be two or three weeks when it becomes really apparent that this Omicron wave is substantially declining across the country, and when consumers start planning again for the future in a more wholesale fashion,” said Dr. Gottlieb.
However, he was also quick to note that nothing is for certain, particularly during a pandemic with as many ups and downs as this one.
“Can we have confidence that when consumers start planning for the summer and fall that it’s not going to get interrupted? It’s hard to handicap these things with certainty, but I think the overwhelming likelihood is that the answer is yes, that the prevalence is going to remain low and that if we have to deal with this coronavirus again in the summer and fall that it’s going to be a much more seasonal fashion,” added Dr. Gottlieb.
When asked by Del Rio whether Europe and Alaska specifically will bounce back in terms of travel, Dr. Gottlieb said he’s hopeful, based on declining case numbers in the United States.
“I think Europe is on a very similar trajectory to the U.S. … When you look at places like Europe, certainly Western Europe and even Europe, it looks very much like the U.S. The composition of immunity is as good, if not better. The experience in Europe has been very similar to the U.S. through all these waves of infection,” said Dr. Gottlieb.
And as for Alaska, Dr. Gottlieb added: “I wouldn’t expect Alaska to be any different than the rest of the continental United States.”
Del Rio to travel advisors: “Now is no time to quit”
Noting how 2022 has gotten off to a rocky start, with the Omicron wave and the CDC’s Level 4 advisory against cruise travel on Dec. 30, 2021, Del Rio urged travel advisors to remain positive and dig in their heels.
“Be proactive, be encouraged,” he said. “We’ve endured and survived two years of this monster and now is no time to quit. Our travel partners are among the most passionate, dedicated and resilient professionals that any industry can hope for, a group that is keenly focused on getting the travel industry and cruise industry back to where it was pre-pandemic – a wonderful, profitable and very personally satisfying business like no other.”
Despite recent cruise cancellations as a result of the Omicron wave, Del Rio reassured agents that NCLH’s three brands – Norwegian Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania Cruises – have the ability to operate full fleets by late spring.
“You can rest assured that our three brands are putting health and safety first and foremost. We have made every effort, spared no expense to have the most stringent protocols in the hospitality and leisure space, from requiring 100% vaccinated guests and crew, to universal pre-cruise testing for all guests before boarding, to routine testing for our crew as the backbone of our health and safety strategy. We simply will not take risks with the wellbeing of our crew and our guests for the sake of profit,” said Del Rio.
“There are different rules for the cruise industry”
While health and safety protocols remain priority #1 for NCLH, Del Rio was also quick to point out how the cruise industry has been unfairly singled out throughout the pandemic by public health officials.
“Our industry offers robust testing and we track cases and diligently report them to the CDC and other public health administrations. It’s something that no other industry is required to do – not hotels, resorts, theme parks, airlines or any other part of hospitality. So there are different rules for the cruise industry and those rules, which help public safety, hurt our industry in uncountable ways.”
Back in October 2020, the CDC replaced its No Sail Order, which barred the operation of all U.S- based ocean-going cruise ships, with a 40-page ‘Framework for Conditional Sailing Order (CSO).’ Applying to ships carrying a minimum 250 passengers in U.S. waters, the Framework included a wide range of requirements for cruise ship operators in order to safely resume operations. These included simulated ‘trial’ voyages, mass crew testing, onboard laboratory testing equipment and more.
The CSO is set to expire on Jan. 15, 2022, at which point cruise lines will transition to a voluntary COVID-19 risk mitigation program.