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Royal Caribbean Foresees A ‘Controlled’ Return To The U.S. Virgin Islands

CHARLOTTE AMALIE — Royal Caribbean gave the local business community a preview of what to expect when its ships return to local waters. The answer is, of course, not as much as before COVID-19.

In an online meeting sponsored by Governor Albert Bryan and Royal Caribbean Group, cruise line officials described a more limited and controlled experience both for passengers and the businesses that serve them in order to build back consumer confidence.

“We will have vaccinated crews and passengers, but not necessarily a vaccinated destination,” Associate Vice President of Gaming and Onboard Revenue Elisa Shen said Wednesday. “If most of the time is spent on the ship and we get it right, the same care should apply to the destination.”

The company — which operates Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Silversea Cruises — has announced it will resume sailing to many Caribbean destinations in June, but a resumption of calls to U.S. ports hinges on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifting a no-sail order on ships that carry more than 250 passengers.

Royal Caribbean is retooling its destinations and itineraries on a case by case basis. In Cypress and Greece, for example, a passenger must sign up for one of the cruise line’s own shore excursions in order to disembark. And for the first Bahamas sailings in June, the cruise line will feature its own private island, Cococay, where it can better assure stringent COVID protocols are followed.

“We can have oversight of the staff who work on the island, oversight of the guests, and the population on the island,” Shen said. Royal Caribbean developed the more close-ended approach with its “cruises to nowhere” — short cruises marketed to residents of Singapore launched last year. The trials were very successful, Director of Business and Destination Development Jayne Halcomb said, with zero COVID cases reported after 30,000 guests.

Destination sailings will resume at 50% capacity with rigorous distancing and masking requirements. Temperature checks will be taken at almost every venue, including at the casino tables, and staterooms will be cleaned and fogged, officials said.

There is no question of if Royal Caribbean ships will return to the V.I., one of its most popular destinations, Halcomb said.

When it does return, Royal Caribbean guests will be looking for more off-the-beaten-path tours that avoid big crowds, and more private transportation opportunities, officials said.

There will be minimum requirements for new operators — one being insurance, a barrier to entry for smaller businesses, Shen acknowledges. She suggested the company’s current on-island operators would be willing to partner with smaller ones who offer a tour or service they can’t. The company also encouraged new businesses to reach out directly to Royal Caribbean staff.

The cruise line wants the territory to improve its infrastructure too, especially on St. Croix, and is willing to be a long-term development partner to make it happen, officials said.

“St. Croix has huge potential, but its berth limits the size of ships to the Voyager class of at most 3,000 passengers. We want to see that expanded,” Halcomb said. “We have several new megaships in development, and by the time we are ready to introduce them, we want the USVI to be ready.”

Other enhancements on the Royal Caribbean wish list include more activities, more bus and taxi tours, sprucing up the beaches and making the port facility more inviting. The company indicated it has already been in discussions with local government to make these improvements.

Once accomplished, Halcomb said she expects St. Croix’s popularity will surpass that of some neighboring islands.

With the enhancements, the company plans to offer a dual V.I. itinerary with one day on St. Thomas and another on St. Croix, she said.

The cruise line is also willing to experiment with some late departures, staying until 7 or 7:30 p.m., provided entertainment is available and shops and restaurants are willing to stay open to support it.

Noting that late departures have been a discussion for years, downtown business owner Katina Coulianos asked if these evening experiences, too, would be controlled.

“In our initial return to service, controlled experiences will be introduced,” said Halcomb, “and if we implement late departures, that will also require activities and entertainment to reflect these new protocols.”

Speaking as a frequent Caribbean cruiser, forum attendee Amy Herrick said that the idea being “trapped in a controlled group” didn’t appeal to her.

“If I cannot get off the ship without being in a cruise-controlled group, sadly, I do not see me returning to cruising for some time,” Herrick said.

Halcomb said the company anticipates there will be others who feel as Herrick does.

“We do not expect the required tours to be an indefinite protocol,” she said.

The company encouraged local business who want to work with Royal Caribbean to contact Melissa De La Cruz at mdelacruz@rccl.com or Daniella Cardenas at Daniellacardenas@rccl.com. Those who would like to work with its partner Celebrity Cruises can reach out to Althea Palmer at apalmer@rccl.com or Iris Rosario at irosario@rccl.com.

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