No imminent return expected for cruise ships – despite lifting of ‘no sail order’

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by Gemma Handy

Cruise ships are unlikely to be seen again in Antigua’s waters until at least early next year, delivering another financial blow to local businesses which have traditionally relied on cruise passengers’ dollars to get them through Christmas.

Last week, Carnival Corporation – the world’s biggest cruise operator – announced it would not be sailing again until February.

And that’s set to be mirrored by some of the country’s most frequent callers, industry bosses warned yesterday.

“Being realistic, it’s unlikely we will see any cruise ships here this year,” Dona Regis-Prosper, boss of Global Ports Holding which manages the island’s cruise port, told Observer.

Hopes had been high that the October 31 lifting of the ‘no sail order’ by the US’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would pave the way for the ships’ imminent return to the region.

But strict coronavirus protocols have left liners grappling to put a litany of safety measures in place – including testing all crew for Covid, boosting laboratory capacity to test passengers, and running a series of trial sails.

Earlier this month, the first cruise in the Caribbean since March was forced to halt its journey after passengers tested positive for the illness. The outbreak was a major setback for the industry and saw the SeaDream Yacht Club cancel the rest of its 2020 trips.

With nine brands under its umbrella, Carnival’s delayed return to the seas is significant.

For the first quarter of this year, before borders were closed, 29 Carnival ships – including Aida, Costa, P&O, and Holland America – docked in St John’s.

The country’s most frequent visitor – Royal Caribbean – has also hinted it is in no hurry to set sail. Its CEO Richard Fain recently said the company would “not rush to return to service” until it had “figured out the changes” needed to keep guests and crew safe.

“We are in contact with cruise companies on a weekly basis, some every other day. Just like us, they are paying attention to what is happening too. Because it’s a pandemic we are dealing with, the situation is sensitive, dynamic and volatile,” Regis-Prosper said.

“Right now we are just trying to be prepared, putting protocols in place so when they say they’re ready to come, we are in a position to say we are ready to receive you.”

Exacerbating problems are fears of a third wave of the virus as winter sets in, she explained.

“How we respond to Covid-19 will determine what happens,” she added.

Tourism Authority CEO Colin James said the sector was beholden to guidance from CDC which has put its ‘conditional sailing order’ in place until November 1 2021.

“My best estimate is that we may not see a resumption of cruise ships until the first quarter of next year,” he told Observer.

“That means we won’t get the usual financial benefits over the next few weeks which would normally be a very good time for us.

“But I’m hopeful that as a vaccine becomes available early next year, we will see ships coming back.

“One positive thing is that cruising has an immediate economic impact on local businesses,” James added.

Cruising has long accounted for the bulk of visitors to Antigua and Barbuda. Head tax alone currently stands at US$8 per passenger. That generated US$250,000 in revenue between January and March 2020 before ports were closed, Regis-Prosper said.

A report by the non-profit Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA) found Antigua and Barbuda made US$24 million in port fees, taxes and local supplies during the 2017 to 2018 cruise year.

On top of all that, cruises mean dollars for everyone from taxis to tour operators, restaurants and shops.

“For some taxi drivers, cruise passengers account for up to 80 percent of their business,” one driver said. “I don’t think people will want to take cruises for a while; they will feel safer on planes,” she added.

Glen Hector, owner of excursion company Creole Antigua Tours, said he was not anticipating income from cruise passengers until the middle of next year.

“Their absence will have a huge effect on us as our season runs from November to April,” he explained. “Sixty percent of my bookings normally come from the ships.”

And Stephanie Cordice, of Cutie’s restaurant in Redcliffe Quay, said four in five of her customers were cruise ship passengers during peak season months.

“We heard we may not see any until next April. It’s crazy – much longer than we had hoped,” she told Observer.

“Redcliffe Quay is dead at the moment. There is no one walking around, no tourists. We have a local following thankfully; without that we would have gone from one hundred to zero.”

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