When will cruises return? Loosened virus restrictions, change in law could send ships to Hawaii once again

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Several cruise lines announced their intentions last week to resume vacation cruises this summer to ports in Alaska, Florida or Texas — but it doesn’t appear Hawaii will be on any port of call itineraries anytime soon.

“I’d be surprised if we have any cruises in Hawaii before the end of the year,” a source close to the industry who requested anonymity said Friday.

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Congress has approved a bill to allow large foreign-flagged cruise ships to sail directly from Washington state to Alaska, bypassing the Passenger Vessel Services Act, an 1886 federal law barring foreign-flagged ships from carrying passengers between two U.S. ports without a stop in another country. President Joe Biden is expected to sign the measure into law.

In addition, on May 5, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted COVID-19 testing requirements for fully vaccinated cruise ship passengers, another step toward getting the dry-docked cruise industry back in business in the U.S. Vaccinated travelers and those who contracted COVID-19 within the past 90 days and recovered also aren’t required to get tested onboard if they come into contact with an infected individual, as long as they’re asymptomatic.

“The CDC recently provided modifications to previously issued technical guidance under the Framework for Conditional Sailing Order,” said a spokesman for Norwegian Cruise Lines Holdings Ltd., the parent company of Norwegian Cruise Lines. “We continue to work with the CDC to establish an agreeable path to the safe resumption of cruising in the U.S. while protecting guests, crew and the communities we visit.”

NCL Hawaii owns the MS Pride of America, the only large U.S.-flagged cruise ship in operation — which prior to the pandemic had been cruising between Hawaii ports, but has since sat idle in Honolulu Harbor. Any other large cruise ship that sails from a U.S. port to Hawaii has to make a stop at a foreign port — usually at Fanning Island in the Republic of Kiribati, about 1,000 miles south of Hawaii.

NCL’s website advertises bookings for summer and fall cruises, including Hawaii interisland cruises starting in August, but that doesn’t mean those cruises will actually occur. Even though the CDC has eased restrictions on mask wearing for fully vaccinated people, the state still has emergency orders mandating the wearing of masks in public, which Gov. David Ige said will remain in place for now.

“Since the beginning of this pandemic, the state of Hawaii has taken a very cautious, conservative approach and it has generally done a good job of keeping it under control,” said Daniel Spencer, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa School of Travel Industry Management. “There have been stumbles here, but there have also been stumbles everywhere. And so I think we can expect that trajectory to continue — that cautious, conservative approach.”

Tourism is clearly on the rebound in Hawaii. On Thursday, there were 27,396 trans-Pacific arrivals at the state’s airports, 3,419 of them in Kailua-Kona. Exactly a year earlier, on May 20, 2020, there were only 954 trans-Pacific passengers arriving at the state’s airports, and just 43 of them in Kona.

“My wife owns a private tour company, and she is booked solid,” Spencer said. “This is an expression of this pent-up demand. You know, I was on Maui at the end of March, and it was just really buzzing. We live in an age in which this is the thing to do. This is what people do for fun. And one of the hardest things for people to endure during the pandemic was not being able to vacation.”

Doug Arnott, who with wife Glory operates Arnott’s Lodge and Adventures — which does business with cruise lines and their passengers — recalled when American Hawaii Cruises, which owned the interisland cruise ships SS Constitution and SS Independence, went bankrupt in 2001. He wonders if there might be a repeat of that with other cruise lines as monetary losses are piling up while ships are restricted to port.

“They’re all leveraged to the hilt,” Arnott said. “They’ve lost any semblance of positive financing; they’re all mortgaged. They’re all like $600 million, $700 million, $800 million ships.”

Arnott said after American Cruises Hawaii’s bankruptcy he demanded cash payment on the day of services with cruise companies, but doubts any would agree to those terms in today’s corporate climate. He sent an email to fellow small tour operators detailing his experiences and hopes they’ll take a cue from what he called “a cautionary tale.”

“I’m not telling them to not do business with the cruise lines, but I am saying for them to go in with their eyes wide open,” Arnott said.

He also noted there are outbreaks of COVID-19 in other countries such as India and Japan, and wonders what effect onboard outbreaks would have if there is another wave of infections.

For his part, Spencer sees a positive message in the CDC’s loosening of restrictions on cruise lines and the announced intention by the cruise lines to take to the seas soon. He thinks those who want to cruise will book a vacation.

“You know, before the pandemic began, we had these outbreaks aboard cruise ships,” he said. “So, people know that it is an environment in which the risk in contracting a contagious respiratory disease is higher than if you were to go to Las Vegas or to Disney World, or on some other kind of vacation. And so that might have a dampening effect on this release of pent-up demand — but I still think things will rebound for cruise travel. And the reason for it is you still have the baby boomer generation in retirement now, and cruising is a passive form of recreation.

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“It’s something that retirees still love to do, and that’s driving the whole cruise market, globally. That hasn’t changed.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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