After a 15-month, pandemic-induced hiatus, cruising has returned to America.
Royal Caribbean‘s Celebrity Edge is less than 24 hours away from setting sail off the coast of Florida, the first passenger cruise from a U.S. port since the Covid pandemic shuttered the industry’s operations across the globe last year.
“We’ve waited so long for this moment, and it’s here and it’s magnificent,” Royal Caribbean CEO Richard Fain said in an exclusive interview Friday on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”
The Celebrity Edge is running at 36% capacity to allow for social distancing. Still, that’s nearly 1,100 passengers who will set sail Saturday from Port Everglades, Florida.
All crew are 100% vaccinated, and nearly all passengers are vaccinated with the exception of two adults and 24 kids under the age of 16, the company said. It’s now outfitted with a larger medical unit, fully equipped with two doctors and three nurses, plus extra ICU beds and ventilators.
“We want them to start slow, you know, we haven’t been operating for 15 months,” Fain said. “Like anything else we want to start slowly and build up, give people a chance to practice, give people a chance to go back into the experience.”
Celebrity Edge is no longer requiring passengers to be vaccinated after a Florida court temporarily blocked the CDC from preventing a resumption of cruising in the U.S. Those who are unvaccinated will be subject to additional restrictions and the cost of Covid testing, Fain said. Health experts say that could give people an incentive to get vaccinated before taking a cruise.
Fain, along with the broader cruise industry, have been fighting for survival for more than a year after the U.S. and other nations suspended operations to contain Covid outbreaks spreading aboard ships. Every major cruise line has raised billions of dollars in debt and issued stock to stay afloat.
Cruise lines are hoping to get back to pre-pandemic sailing volume as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eases restrictions on the industry.
“I see the untapped demand, the people who are really anxious to get back into the sea, I see that as very strong,” Fain said. “In fact, we’re overwhelmed with people calling, clearly want to get back and go into normalcy.”
“People are tired of being cooped up at home. They want to get out, and they’re booking accordingly,” he added.
However, Covid continues to be a challenge. On Thursday, Royal Caribbean disclosed that two kids tested positive on board the Adventure of Seas.
Fain said it is unrealistic to think ships will sail 100% Covid free.
“There will be cases on board cruise ships,” he said, adding “the important thing is that we make sure that they’re isolated cases, and that they don’t become an outbreak.”
Fain said they know how to isolate travelers if someone gets sick and that most everyone on board their ships will be vaccinated.
Capt. Kate McCue said Saturday will be an emotional day for her. McCue has been on board the Celebrity Edge since early last year, manning the ship.
“Every single crew member is anticipating the moment when our first guest steps on our gangway, and to say we’re excited is an understatement,” McCue said in an interview.
Passengers are also eager to get on board.
“Pretty excited to be a part of this revival. It’s been a long time coming,” said New Jersey resident Julie Spiech, who will be one of the first to board the Celebrity Edge on Saturday.
Her husband agrees.
“We’ve cruised for many years. And we love it. And we’ve missed it,” Phil Spiech said. “I retired two years ago, and this is what I wanted to do sail and travel and everything was put on hold.”
While Julie Spiech is excited about getting on board, she’s not sure whether they’ll take any off-board trips. She said they’ll be watching the cases overseas before making a decision.
“We’re not sure about whether we’re going to do any excursions yet. We have to look into…what’s happening in the other countries that we’re going to,” said Spiech.
— CNBC’s Pia Singh contributed to this report.