Cruise ships’ return to Hawaii remains in muddy waters

Come Nov. 1, larger cruise ships could return again to Hawaii’s waters — but it’s probably not going to be smooth sailing at first for the floundering cruise ship industry.

In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a travel advisory saying U.S. citizens, particularly those with underlying conditions, should not travel by cruise ship. Then, the CDC issued a “no-sail” order for vessels with the capacity to carry at least 250 passengers in waters subject to U.S. jurisdiction.

The CDC had wanted the order, which was due to expire on Wednesday, extended to keep cruise shops docked until mid-February. However, the White House intervened, and the order was only extended through Oct. 31, a date that most of the industry had voluntarily agreed to honor anyway.

It’s still unclear how many cruise ships might return to Hawaii this year or what the state’s public safety plan is for their return. Operating could be challenging given that an interisland quarantine still exists and there are differing COVID-19 restrictions across the counties, which could interfere with port calls as well as activities and attractions.

Norwegian Cruise Line and Princess Cruises told the Star-Advertiser that they are taking bookings for this year.

But State Department of Transportation spokesman Tim Sakahara said “currently there are no cruise line bookings for Honolulu Harbor the remainder of the year.”

To change that, the cruise industry has to get their plans approved by the CDC and state HDOT Harbors Division. They also would need to find a way to navigate Hawaii’s interisland quarantines and other county restrictions, which might keep passengers from being allowed to make port calls.

“The cruise industry submitted its safety protocol plans and is seeking approval from the CDC. The HDOT Harbors Division are awaiting further discussions with the cruise lines to match state and county
requirements for a safe re-start of cruise operations,” Sakahara said. “The HDOT Harbors Division and federal authorities will review the plans of each cruise ship operator in advance of any scheduled stops in Hawaii.”

A spokesperson for Norwegian Cruise Line said the company’s voluntary suspension of global cruise voyages currently includes all sailings through Oct. 31.

“At this time, we do not have any further voyage suspensions to announce and sailings from November onwards remain bookable via our usual channels,” the spokesperson said. “We continue to evaluate the situation and will share additional known suspensions as soon as possible. We remain optimistic and hope to relaunch cruise operations in Hawaii in the near future.”

Negin Kamali, a spokeswoman for Princess Cruises, said in an email that Princess Cruises continues to be paused till mid-December. Kamali said the company’s first cruise to Hawaii is slated for Dec. 21.

Kamali said Princess is an active member of Cruise Lines International Association, which has put forth to the U.S Centers for Disease Control an industrywide restart plan for cruising from U.S. homeports.

“The restart plan incorporates input from Carnival Corporation and our individual brands, along with fellow members of CLIA. Our team is continuing to refine Princess Cruises return to serv­ice plan and CLIA’s guiding principles will serve as the foundation,” she said.

“Through our collaboration with CLIA and other industry partners, we are also engaged with some of the world’s top medical experts and scientists, who are providing valuable insight to inform the ongoing and evolving development of new and enhanced protocols based on the latest scientific evidence and best practices to protect public health,” she said. “We are working together as one united industry focused on the well-being of guests, crew and the communities we visit.”

There’s a lot at stake for destinations and the cruise industry.

According to the CDC, there were at least 3,689 COVID-19 or COVID-like illness cases and at least 41 deaths on cruise ships in U.S. waters from March 1 through Sept. 29.

CLIA has noted staggering economic losses to the U.S. cruise industry, which before COVID-19 generated over $53 billion in U.S. economic activity and supported 421,000 jobs. CLIA estimates that each day that cruise operations have been suspended has cost 2,500 jobs worldwide.

Hawaii Tourism Authority reported that only 20 cruise ships came to Hawaii during the first eight months of the year, bringing 29,792 cruise ship arrivals. According to HTA, that was a more than 61% drop from 2019, when 37 cruise ships traveled to Hawaii, carrying 77,036 visitors.

Despite the losses, it’s still uncertain as to when Hawaii might be willing to welcome the cruise industry back.

Gov. David Ige’s Sept. 23 emergency proclamation officially authorizes a pre-arrivals testing program that would ease travel restrictions for some U.S. travelers flying into Hawaii.

Ige’s order says that starting Oct. 15, “travelers who, upon entry into the state, provide written confirmation from a state approved COVID-19 testing facility of a negative test result from a test administered to the traveler within 72 hours from the final leg of departure, will be exempt from the mandatory quarantine.”

The proclamation kept the interisland quarantine for travelers arriving in the counties of Kauai, Hawaii, Maui and Kalawao (Kalaupapa) in place. However, it did allow counties to adopt a negative test exception process allowing travelers to bypass the interisland quarantine.

It doesn’t address if the pre-arrivals program might be applied to travelers who come into Hawaii via cruise ships, which have different entry requirements than planes.

Kauai is seeking Ige’s approval for a rule that would require everyone who comes into Kauai to quarantine for 72 hours and then take a second test to get out of the 14-day quarantine. Other neighbor island counties also could ask for greater restrictions than have been set for Oahu, where the bulk of COVID-19 cases have occurred.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green said during a status update Thursday at the Hawai‘i Convention Center that state and county leaders are still working on finalizing details of the pre-arrivals testing program. Green said Ige is likely to further clarify the program during a media briefing on Tuesday.

According to the current Oct. 15 program, travelers who fly directly into a neighbor island and have met the requirements of Hawaii’s pre-arrivals testing program won’t have to quarantine. Also, U.S. mainland travelers who have layovers at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu won’t have to quarantine either if they’ve met all the pre-arrivals testing requirements before arriving at their final neighbor island destination.

The partial interisland quarantine applies to travelers who are arriving on the counties of Kauai, Hawaii, Maui and Kalawao. Travelers who have flown directly from the U.S. mainland into one of these destinations could island-hop to Oahu, which doesn’t have an interisland quarantine. Locals from Kauai, Hawaii, Maui and Kalawao don’t have to quarantine on Oahu, but the current interisland quarantine requires that they quarantine in their counties upon their return.

Green said he doesn’t speak for the county mayors and will defer to them on what they want to do about the interisland quarantine. However, he believes, that “in truth because you were already screened and negative, you should be very low risk.”

Green was more forthright in sharing his opinion on quickly restarting cruises.

“At this point, I don’t love that because we had a lot of problems and we are trying to handle one problem at a time, so cruise ships would be wise to contact our director of health and our team before any plans are made,” he said. “But I do think that eventually all travelers are likely to be treated the same and will need pre-travel testing before coming. It’s just that the incidents on cruise ships were kind of high.”

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