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January 14, 2021

Five factors that will determine extent of 2021 cruise ship season

File photo / Laurie Schreiber A cruise ship sits off Bar Harbor during a pre-pandemic year. CruiseMaine and other interests are working on protocols for the potential resumption of cruise ship operations this year.

Five factors will play an important role in determining whether, to what extent, and when cruise ships might be visiting Maine in 2021. 

Most of those factors are beyond the control of state and municipal governments. But Maine communities will have a say in one.

Passenger cruise operations in U.S. waters have been suspended since March 14, 2020, when most cruise lines voluntarily suspended operations and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued a no sail order.

“One of our key objectives at CruiseMaine is to help our member ports with regulatory compliance,” Sarah Flink, executive director of CruiseMaine, said in a December news release. “Although the beginning of our season is still several months away and may very well be delayed further depending on health metrics and other factors, we know safe resumption of cruise operations in Maine will involve everyone from longshoremen to tour operators to medical facilities. 

Test sails

The top factor influencing resumption of operations is related to a U.S. CDC framework that replaced U.S. CDC’s no sail order on Oct. 30, Flink told Mainebiz.

The “Framework for Resuming Safe and Responsible Cruise Ship Operations” outlines numerous requirements that a cruise ship must meet before it can receive a conditional certification to sail in U.S. waters, including several “simulated voyages” to test new protocols. It also outlines several requirements for shoreside operations, ranging from social distancing to contingency planning for potential cases

The framework is designed to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks on ships and prevent passengers and crew from seeding outbreaks at ports and in the communities where they live. 

Sarah Flink, executive director of CruiseMaine.

In December, CruiseMaine, part of the Maine Office of Tourism, hosted a kickoff session to begin the planning process for a potential 2021 cruise season. Attendees included representatives from Maine ports, the Maine CDC and others involved in businesses or attractions that benefit from cruise passenger visits.

The meeting provided an overview of U.S. CDC requirements and included a presentation by Ioannis Bras of Five Senses Consulting & Development, based in Greece. Bras, who has a background in risk mitigation and cruise ship operations, helped draft the new health and safety protocols adopted by Greek ports before passenger operations resumed there last August.

As it’s written now, the framework says the U.S. CDC will  provide additional guidance for what ports will need to do to prepare for the resumption of cruise ship operations, explained Flink. 

“It’s a question mark whether there will be changes to those regulations from the incoming administration in Washington,” she added. 

Even if there are no changes, cruise lines will need additional guidance to get test cruises up and running, she said. 

Consumer confidence

The second big factor is consumer confidence to go on cruises and travel in general she said. That goes hand in hand with the third big factor — vaccination roll-outs. 

No cruise line has announced vaccination requirements for passengers or crew, she said.

“But there’s an overwhelming sense in the industry that widespread vaccination will be key to the recovery of consumer confidence and demand,” she continued. 

There are good signals that demand is there, she added. For example, inquiries for 2022 bookings is outpacing 2019. 

“Everyone I talk with believes 2021 will clearly be a transitional year, and that’s for all of tourism, not just cruise ships,” she said. “But there’s a lot of indication that, long-term, this is a healthy industry in terms of consumer demand.”

The Canada factor

The fourth big factor is Canada’s decision around whether and when to allow cruise ship visits there. Canada’s actions will impact much of Maine’s business, Flink said.

That’s because of an obscure federal maritime law called the Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886. The law requires foreign-flagged passenger ships to call on a foreign port as part of their itinerary in the U.S.

Almost all ships that operate in U.S. waters are foreign-flagged. 

For foreign-flagged cruise ships visiting Maine ports, the nearest foreign ports are in eastern Canada. 

“It has a big impact on our cruise season,” said Flink.

Canada has a no sail order through Feb. 28 and it’s unclear what will happen after that, she said.

“We can’t definitively say we won’t have ships in 2021 if Canada leaves the no sail order in place” through 2021, she said. But the industry is keeping an eye on developments there.

The situation is further complicated by the ongoing closure of the U.S./Canada border, she added.

US-flagged ships

However, Maine also typically receives visits from two small U.S.-flagged cruise ships from American Cruise Lines —the Independence and the American Constitution — that are not subject to current federal CDC regulations regarding resumption of operations, nor are they impacted by the Passenger Vessel Services Act because they are American-flagged, she said.

“So we anticipate working closely with Maine CDC in the coming months to determine the state's readiness for when those small ships can safely resume passenger cruises in Maine,” Flink said.

American Cruise Lines typically calls on nine ports in Maine and has maintained an active dialogue with each of those communities about the upcoming season, she said.

Community readiness

The fifth factor, and the one that communities have control over, is community readiness. 

Each port community needs to feel safe and be ready with new safety protocols, Flink said.

“Ports that want ships this year will need protocols in place and they’re going to need to be coordinated with the cruise lines,” she said. 

CruiseMaine is working with communities to develop protocols, she added.

“Our role as CruiseMaine is to support those conversations however we can and to serve as a liaison between these coastal communities and the Maine CDC and Gov. [Janet Mills'] office,” she said.

“Most of the factors impacting whether Maine will have a cruise season are outside of our control, so we are focused on the one component that we can address: port readiness,” she continued. 

To help ports get ready, CruiseMaine hosted a kickoff meeting on Dec. 15 to provide an overview of all the new protocols that will likely be required to welcome cruise visitors safely in 2021. Maine CDC was represented at that meeting by state epidemiologist Dr. Siiri Bennett. Maine CDC will continue to be closely involved with the planning and approval process throughout the coming weeks and months.

The next step is the official formation of a task force, with representatives from each of Maine’s 10 cruise ports, she said. 

“For each port, we need consistent protocols for prevention and mitigation in place, including enhanced sanitation, embarkation plans that ensure social distancing, mask distribution and disposal and so on,” she said. “We also need contingency plans in place for any potential cases as well as an overarching communications plan with roles and responsibilities clearly delineated.”

She added, “It’s a lot for community planners.”

CruiseMaine’s primary goal is to make sure everyone is safe when cruising resumes in Maine, she added.

“Gov. Mills has made it clear again and again that we will follow the science and prioritize public health,” she said. “As CruiseMaine looks ahead to a potential 2021 season, that is our number one guiding principle.

“We also know that tourism and hospitality businesses have been hit especially hard, so if there is anything we, as CruiseMaine, can do to support economic recovery in this sector while still prioritizing public health, we are eager to do it.”

Maine’s peak cruise season is September/October. 

The first ship was originally scheduled to arrive in Maine on April 24. The earliest scheduled ships now are May 8 in Portland and May 14 in Bar Harbor. 

Cruise ship planning

In normal times, cruise lines plan their itineraries two to three years in advance, if not more, she said. 

“So the timeline of what they’re doing now has been dramatically shortened,” she said. 

Factors impacting the timeline for cruise lines include the U.S. CDC’s requirement that they conduct test cruises to test health and safety protocols, she explained.

“They then have to wait 60 days until they can have a revenue-generating trip,” she said. “To do that they need to apply for a conditional sailing permit from the CDC.”

The U.S. CDC has placed strict oversight over conditional sailing permits, including considerations such itineraries, passenger counts and how long a ship will be in port.

Cruise ships will likely resume sailing with short itineraries around their home base of operation, she said. 

CruiseMaine would like to have a draft plan, in partnership with Maine CDC, ready within the next two to three months, she said.

Maine’s cruise ships ports are Eastport, Bar Harbor, Portland, Rockland, Bucksport, Bath, Boothbay Harbor, Camden, Belfast and Castine. 

Bucksport is typically the smallest port, receiving 10 visits from American Cruise Line’s small liner American constitution. Bar Harbor is Maine’s largest cruise ship port; it received nearly 200 visits in 2019. 

Statewide in 2019, about 430 port calls were scheduled, compared to 400 in 2018.

The cruise lines themselves appear to be hanging on despite lack of revenue, she said.

“No one is saying they’re about to fold,” Flink said.

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