More than a year since its last sailing, Norwegian Cruise Line this week announced its return to cruising with three ships starting this July. The news brings an end to a period of uncertainty for the cruise line, and starts it on the road to finally welcoming guests back on board its ships.
“It feels amazing and we’re extremely grateful,” Katina Athanasiou, the chief sales officer at NCL, told Travel Market Report on Tuesday. “I am so excited for our partners to now be able to offer our customers truly the best vacation experience.”
Bookings are already open for the sailings and, as more and more Americans are being vaccinated each day, NCL expects to have strong demand.
“We’ve seen an uptick in demand over the last several months. We anticipate that today and the next coming days and weeks and months will only be better,” Athanasiou said.
Why the Caribbean and Greece?
Norwegian will kick off its long-awaited return with sailings in both the Caribbean, starting in July, and Greece, starting in August. Norwegian will return with three ships—Jade, Joy, and Gem. Jade will sail seven-day Greek Isle cruises starting on July 25, while Joy will sail seven-day Caribbean itineraries out of Montego Bay starting on Aug. 7 and Joy will sail the same out of Punta Cana starting on Aug. 15.
The decision to restart in those regions came down to consumer demand and where Norwegian could guarantee a healthy and safe return.
“We really started with where our guests and travelers wanted to go and it was about making sure we could explore opportunities for a safe return to sailing,” Athanasiou said. “We wanted to make sure that we had the best airlift and destination for where our consumers wanted to travel.”
The Dominican Republic’s Punta Cana and Jamaica’s Montego Bay, the two homeports for the Caribbean, were the first and second most popular destinations for U.S. guests in the Caribbean, which made it an easy choice for Norwegian.
In Greece, a country that has routinely been one of the most popular travel destinations for Americans visiting Europe, Norwegian’s ability to collaborate with the country’s government made it a good choice.
“Greece has been fantastic in terms of partnership and government and many people choose Greece as the number one travel destination for Europe,” Athanasiou said.
“Specifically for Greece, what I am most excited about this is a seven-day itinerary for six ports of call and no sea days. There is intense port time.”
Onboard changes and vaccination requirement
Perhaps the biggest news from Norwegian’s announcement was the line’s 100% vaccination requirement for all guests. While those first sailings, considering the vaccination timelines, might trend toward more adults than usual, Athanasiou said that the Norwegian onboard experience won’t change.
“Onboard product will not be materially different. All restaurants will be open, onboard activities like the race track, and entertainment, will all be open and operating,” she said.
Norwegian also expects that, come July, minors will have the chance to be vaccinated and will be able o board those sailings.
“I think it’s super important to remember that we are sailing north of 90 days from now and there have been tremendous strides on the vaccine front even just in the last 30 days,” she said. “We anticipate being able to welcome guests who have been vaccinated, period, including minors.”
In fact, a survey Norwegian sent out to guests saw that close to 70% of interested guests have already been vaccinated with at least one dose. “People are ready,” Athanasiou added.
Aside from the vaccination requirement, some onboard changes are also expected, but Athanasiou doesn’t see those changes impacting the cruise experience.
The face-covering requirement, for instance, will only affect guests inside public spaces and where social distancing is impossible. Guests on the pool decks, for example, will be able to spend time without a face covering as Norwegian expects that, at a reduced capacity and with the appropriate arrangement on deck, they will be enough space to socially distance.
“What was important for us, before, it was important for us to not compromise on our cruise vacation experience. Health and safety needed to be just in line with also providing the great vacation experience,” Athanasiou added.
Moving forward, Norwegian is not looking farther out than Oct. 31, which is the date that it has said it will require vaccinations through. A lot could change between now and then, including possible changes from the CDC.
“We have conversations every day,” she said. “We really look at all of the viable options so we can ensure we have the right product at the right destination.”
What do travel advisors need to know?
“I would tell you I want our travel partners to feel confident and to be confident that we have a science-backed plan with the best and healthiest and safest way to restart operations,” Athanasiou said.
“This is just the first step in the restart and Norwegian is hoping for a bright future for its crew and employees, its guests, and its travel partners.”
To accommodate its partners, Athanasiou told TMR that it would be paying commissions on all bookings “the minute they are paid in full” and it doesn’t matter if it’s a cash booking or an FCC booking. Commission payments will be sent out, starting on May 1, for all bookings right at final payment, for initial sailings and sailings in 2022 or 2023.
“It’s a real positive change for us,” Athanasiou said. “We’re going to be getting revenue into the hands of our travel partners starting on May 1.”
Norwegian will hold a Partners First webinar this Thursday to walk advisors through the restart.
The line is also giving advisors a chance to get on board through an advisor-specific sweepstake called the Great Cruise Comeback Giveaway. Norwegian will officially announce the giveaway on Thursday during that webinar, but the line will give advisors who book any one cabin a chance to win one of 500 balcony cabins to sail on any 2021 voyage themselves.
Finally, the line will also be showcasing the restart through its new docuseries called EMBARK, premiering April 15 at 8 p.m. here and on Facebook.
“It is a behind the scenes, thoughtful look across all different departments on how we have gone through this journey and how we are getting back to the water safely,” she said.