Norwegian Cruise Line’s first revenue cruise from the U.S. departed from Seattle for Alaska on Saturday, Aug. 7 after a 16-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the sailing onboard Norwegian Encore, the line’s newest ship which debuted toward the end of 2019, members of the company’s executive team and the Port of Seattle met for a panel at Pier 66.
All attendees were required to be vaccinated, undergo a rapid onsite antigen test, and wear a mask for the duration of the press conference. It was a taste of what will be required of every passenger and crewmember, according to the company’s new SailSAFE program, developed in partnership with former U.S. FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb.
“Cruising is an economic accelerator that has never been appreciated or needed more than now,” Tom Norwalk, president, and CEO of Visit Seattle said as he kicked off a panel discussion about the line’s self-proclaimed comeback, which took place this past Saturday.
“I haven’t felt this good since March 9, 2020 — the day before the CDC shut us down,” Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH), told the small audience of media and fellow senior management members. “Norwegian Encore is the newest, biggest, and most innovative ship in the Norwegian portfolio, and the Alaska marketplace is very important to us, so we’re excited to begin U.S. operations once again — a day that’s been about 500 days in the making.”
Dr. Scott Gottlieb speaking this weekend. Photo: BChrusciel
Commitment to sailing safely
Regarding health and safety measures, Del Rio emphasized that “having Dr. Gottlieb is indicative that we do what we say and say what we mean.” When Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former FDA commissioner and chairman of SailSAFE, Norwegian’s health, and safety program, advised 100 percent vaccination for all guests and crew, that’s exactly what the cruise line did.
“From the first phone call I could tell Frank’s commitment,” Gottlieb said of the SailSAFE initiative. “I could tell it was important to do and commit to, and Frank kept saying it was ‘the right thing to do.’”
Gottlieb mentioned that as new tech for testing emerged, NCLH would secure each iteration, and now boasts the most advanced COVID-19 therapeutics available.
“Cruising is symbolic of getting back to normal for some families, and in this controlled environment, we have the opportunity to do it as safely as possible,” Gottlieb said, noting that with infectious disease, nothing is 100 percent guaranteed. He emphasized the layers of protection in place, from testing and proof of vaccination to the high-quality sanitation standards and filtration systems onboard.
“We’re confident we can keep you healthy, and we’re doing everything humanly possible to ensure safety first,” Del Rio said, going on to say that right now any cruise ship in the NCLH brand is “one of the safest places on earth.”
Members of the panel also noted that Seattle, the port of departure for the line’s return to U.S. cruising, has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country.
“We’ve invested the money and time, and nothing will get in the way of protecting crew and passengers — including politics,” Del Rio said, referencing the current legal battle between the cruise company and the State of Florida. “It was either break the law, which we would never do; operate less safely; or challenge the law.” Del Rio seemed hopeful that Norwegian would be able to safely resume sailings from Miami, starting with Norwegian Gem on August 15, pending the court’s decision.
President and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line, Harry Sommer called the return “simply awesome,” admitting that he teared up upon seeing the ship in the Seattle harbor. “I asked my wife, ‘What would it take to get you back on board a Norwegian ship?’ and she said, ‘If everyone is 100 percent vaccinated.’ So she is here today with my three children, all vaccinated and ready to sail.”
It was also noted that three of the SailSAFE panel members would also sail onboard, “putting their money where their mouth is.” “We really say what we believe and believe what we say,” Sommer iterated.
He went on to address that it would be remiss to only mention safety, and not the extraordinary experiences that guests could look forward to.
Frank Del Rio on Saturday. Photo: BChrusciel
“We didn’t take 16 months off,” Sommer said, mentioning that a large portion of the fleet underwent refurbishments this past year. “Every single inch of Norwegian Encore has been well maintained. From upgrading menus to the staffing, we guarantee the onboard experience is better now than it was prior to March 2020.”
Norwegian polled its past crewmembers around March of this year and 95% replied that they would return and get vaccinated.
“No jab, no job,” Del Rio quipped, but noted that the line has not had an issue recruiting or retaining staff, as opposed to some other sectors of the service industry like restaurants and hotels.
But a staffed ship with nowhere to go wouldn’t work.
“Seattle has been incredible partners for two decades and especially over the past few months, along with our contingency in Alaska,” said Howard Sherman, EVP of destination services and onboard revenue for NCLH.
“We kept the support in the communities going. Our success is based on the destinations and communities we visit — it goes hand in hand — and it’s up to them to provide the same experience in tandem and partnership with Norwegian.” Sherman noted that while some operators wrote off Alaska for the 2021 season, that NCL wouldn’t give up on the destination.
Port of Seattle. Photo: BChrusciel
Cruising’s impact in Seattle
According to Sherman, Alaska felt a $1.5 billion economic impact from the loss of its cruise business last year, and because of that Norwegian invested $10 million in six local communities to make it through the pandemic in case the cruise line was unable to return in 2021.
Norwegian continued to work closely with Ward Cove Dock Group in Ketchikan, and the Huna Totem Corporation in Icy Strait Point, to complete two new piers that will accommodate the line’s largest ships. They are set to be christened next week.
The cruise line also worked with the advisor community throughout the pandemic, according to Sommer.
“The travel trade community is extraordinarily important to us. From the very beginning, we did our best to support the trade community doing things like protecting commission, continuing marketing activities with them when many other vendors stopped, and we’re committed to going forward and doubling down on those efforts."
“Norwegian has been there at the very beginning,” Stephen Metruck, executive director of the Port of Seattle, said of the port’s cruising history. “Our job at the port is to create economic opportunities in equitable and sustainable ways, and I couldn’t think of a better partner [than Norwegian].” An estimated 1.2 million cruise passengers pass through the Port of Seattle each cruise season, generating $900 million across the region, not just the city core.
A $30 million joint investment ensures the port is a working waterfront for small and large businesses, according to Metruck. “Pier 66 is transforming, and much of that is due to the investments from NCL. We’ve laid the groundwork for how it will come back even better.” Metruck also noted that 5,500 people are back to work in the region as a result of the cruise port reopening. A typical season in Seattle sees about 200 ships and $4.2 million in income.
Andrea DeMarco, SVP of ESG, investor relations, and corporate communication for NCLH spoke at the panel about the cruise line’s sustainability measures, including its first-ever climate action strategy, published in June.
“The future of the company is intertwined with the health of the ocean and its destinations, which is why we’re aligned with Seattle on sustainability,” DeMarco said, also mentioning that measures like reducing carbon intensity have lowered fuel consumption by 25 percent for Norwegian Cruise Line over an 11-year period.
Norwegian Jade became the cruise line’s very first ship back on the water on a test cruise from Athens on July 25. According to Del Rio, just one (vaccinated) passenger tested COVID-19 positive before boarding and was denied entry.
“It took teamwork and partnership, but cruising is back better, safer, and more resilient than ever before,” Metruck said. “And Norwegian has played a key role to help us get there.”