TORONTO — The timing had to be right for NCL’s return to sailing. And finally, it is, says the cruise line’s Chief Sales Officer, Katina Athanasiou.
“From the very beginning we said we wouldn’t come back until we were ready,” Athanasiou told Travelweek.
Travelweek’s interview with Athanasiou followed NCL’s announcement yesterday that it has opened the books on brand new 2021 sailings on three ships, its first in more than a year amid the pandemic.
Norwegian Joy will sail week-long Caribbean itineraries out of Montego Bay starting Aug. 7, 2021. Norwegian Gem will also sail the Caribbean, out of La Romana, D.R. starting Aug. 15. And the first cruises on NCL’s 2021 schedule, Greek Isles sailings out of Athens (Piraeus), kick off July 25 on Norwegian Jade.
All passengers will be required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination before boarding.
Just hours into the first day of sales for the new 2021 cruises, Athanasiou said bookings were already strong, not just for sailings on the three return-to-service ships (Norwegian Joy, Gem and Jade) but also forward bookings for cruises on all ships in later 2021 and beyond. In May 2020 NCL opened the books on cruises all the way to 2023.
Speaking of forward bookings, Athanasiou credits Canadian travel agents with leading the way on bookings for NCL’s Tahiti cruises onboard Norwegian Spirit.
NCL’s Canadian travel partners have been steadfastly loyal to the cruise line throughout the pandemic, she says.
“I want to give a huge shout-out to our Canadian travel partners,” Athanasiou told Travelweek.
“We couldn’t do it without them.”
NEW COMMISSION POLICY
In the coming days NCL’s travel partners will be hearing about a change to the company’s commission policy that will see commissions paid when bookings are paid in full.
“That means our travel partners will no longer have to wait for a future cruise credit (FCC) booking to sail to get paid,” said Athanasiou.
The policy update become official May 1 and will be retroactive to April 6.
“It was really important to us to support our travel partners,” said Athanasiou.
Also for travel agents, NCL will announce on April 8 details about its new ‘Great Cruise Comeback Giveaway’ trade promotion. Every deposited booking on the three return-to-service ships earns agents a chance to win 1 of 500 balcony staterooms onboard any of NCL’s 2021 itineraries.
Meanwhile, for passengers, NCL has also extended its temporary Peace of Mind cancellation policy to passengers sailing on cruises booked by April 30, 2021 with embarkation dates through Oct. 31, 2021. These passengers have the flexibility to cancel their cruise 15 days prior to departure. Those who take advantage of the Peace of Mind policy will receive a full refund in the form of a future cruise credit which may be applied to any sailing through Dec. 31, 2022. In addition, final payment for all voyages with embarkations through Oct. 31, 2021, will require payment 60 days prior to embarkation versus the standard 120 days.
It’s all coming together for NCL, which like every other U.S.-based large-ship cruise line has seen operations suspended for more than a year amid the pandemic.
Yesterday’s announcement about the new sailings on Norwegian Joy, Gem and Jade “was a boost in confidence for NCL, our guests and our travel partners,” says Athanasiou.
“WE DIDN’T WANT TO COMPROMISE ON THE EXPERIENCE”
We asked Athanasiou about the newly announced 2021 itineraries. “I think the Caribbean will sell very well,” she said. “We wanted to take the time to make sure we could provide great ports of call, great dining, and we’ve done that.” For the Med cruises, she notes that NCL has home-ported in Athens for many years.
All passengers will be required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination before boarding, as NCL works to prioritize health and safety protocols along with the guest experience. Crew will be vaccinated as well. There will be two antigen COVID-19 tests – one at embarkation and another at disembarkation. Passengers will also be required to wear face coverings in public areas onboard the ship, although not in their staterooms or while dining.
These requirements will be in place for this first phase of NCL’s return to sailing. “This is phase 1,” says Athanasiou.
Phase 1 runs through Oct. 31, 2021. For sailings Nov. 1 and onwards, NCL will review its health and safety protocols and make any tweaks as necessary.
Also in phase 1, at least until Aug. 31, all passengers will be required to take only NCL-operated shore excursions.
All of these protocols are in line with what other cruise lines are doing as they return to service amid the pandemic.
With the protocols in place, “we felt super confident and comfortable knowing we could restart sailings the right way,” said Athanasiou. “For us, the availability of the vaccine has been a game changer.”
The successful vaccination rollout in the U.S. has seen more than 100 million people get at least their first dose already.
NCL hasn’t skimped on days in port. The week-long Norwegian Joy and Norwegian Gem sailings out of Montego Bay and La Romana will have two at-sea days each. Norwegian Jade’s Med sailings won’t have any at-sea days. “We didn’t want to compromise on the experience,” said Athanasiou. “We’re ensuring guests get maximum port time, safely.”
NCLH’S ASK FROM THE CDC
Yesterday’s announcement from NCL about its new Caribbean and Med sailings came just days after the CDC updated its Conditional Sailing Order for the cruise industry with new measures, prompting CLIA to cry foul. The CDC is getting pushback for mixed messages after it CDC also relaxed its guidance for domestic air travel for vaccinated travellers.
Amid the furor, NCL’s parent company, NCLH, which also operates Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, sent a letter to the CDC stating its intentions to restart cruising from U.S. ports on July 4, and asking for the CSO to be lifted. The July 4 date is in keeping with President Biden’s statement in recent weeks that as long as the U.S.’s vaccination rollout stays on track, July 4 could be America’s Independence Day from COVID-19.
In the latest development, just yesterday a spokesperson from the CDC indicated that cruising out of U.S. ports could potentially start as early as mid-summer 2021.
We talked to Athanasiou about NCLH’s ask from the CDC, and asked her which U.S. ports NCL would be looking at for its first U.S. sailings if the CDC gives the green light. “We continue to evaluate the situation,” she said, mentioning two of NCL’s ships, Pride of America, based in Hawaii, and Norwegian Bliss sailing out Seattle.
The cruise industry’s Alaska sailings, typically sailing out of ports including Seattle and also Vancouver, are still in question for summer 2021, ever since the Canadian government announced an extension on the Canadian cruise ban barring large ships from Canadian ports until at least Feb. 28, 2022.
The uncertainty around the 2021 Alaska sailing season has become a hot button issue in recent weeks. In February a U.S. congressional committee suggested cruise ships could sail Canadian waters without disembarking (or embarking) passengers at Canadian ports. And in March, two U.S. Senators, both from Alaska, proposed new legislation, The Alaska Tourism Recovery Act, that would allow cruise ships to sail to Alaska without requiring a stop in another country at all – Canada in this case – as currently mandated under the U.S. Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA).
Meanwhile, while travel south of the border is ramping up, the Canadian travel industry is still dealing with the suspension of sun flights until April 30 and potentially longer, plus the 14-day quarantine including the 3-day hotel quarantine, PCR test requirements and PHAC’s advisory against all non-essential travel.
No matter what happens, NCL is just thrilled to be selling cruises for the 2021 cruise season. Athanasiou says the company is focused on flexibility and strategy in these unpredictable times. That, and giving guests an unparalleled experience.
“Things can change rapidly and we want to stay as nimble and flexible as possible while still executing an amazing experiential product,” Athanasiou told Travelweek. “That was critical for us.”
Agents can watch NCL’s comeback play out in the cruise line’s new ‘EMBARK – The Series’ docuseries, just announced. The first episode – titled ‘Great Cruise Comeback’ (26 mins.), premieres on Thurs. April 15 at 8 p.m. EST at NCL.com/embark.
The series will offers viewers a behind-the-scenes look at NCL’s journey back to sailing, from March 2020 and the start of the pandemic, to when the first ship sets sail in July 2021, says Athanasiou.