* Nothing for 2020, but CDC gives 'path forward'
* Critical for Gov't, ports to aid 'bulletproof' return
* 'Getting across goal line needs awful lot of work'
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The cruise lines will resume calling on The Bahamas' major ports in the 2021 first quarter, Nassau Cruise Port's top executive predicted yesterday, while warning: "We won't see anything in 2020."
Michael Maura, speaking after US health regulators set the conditions the cruise industry must comply with to resume sailing, told Tribune Business that this had provided sufficient clarity on "a path forward" for the sector's return to The Bahamas and other Caribbean nations.
He was quick to point out, though, that much "collaboration" will be required between the cruise lines, Nassau Cruise Port and other major Bahamian gateways, and the Government in developing COVID-19 protocols to ensure the sector's return is "bullet proof" from a health and safety standpoint.
Suggesting that the cruise industry had been working vigorously behind the scenes to address the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) concerns, and had reached the equivalent of a football field's half-way line, Mr Maura said it was now vital that all stakeholders work together and avoid "operating in silos" to ensure the sector's resumption "gets across the goal line".
While hailing the CDC's unveiling of its 'Framework for resuming safe and responsible cruise ship passenger operations' as "great news" for The Bahamas, and all businesses and employees that relied upon the sector for their livelihoods, Mr Maura acknowledged that The Bahamas' major port hubs - Nassau and Freeport - will almost certainly not receive any calls before year-end.
This was effectively confirmed yesterday when Royal Caribbean joined its main rival, Carnival, in announcing that all previously planned sailings for December have now been cancelled through year-end - albeit with some unidentified exceptions - as the industry continues to assess the CDC's directive, and develop its plans for complying with the just announced 'framework'.
"We're not going to see anything in 2020," Mr Maura told Tribune Business. "I would say we will see their return, and I believe we will see a ship, in the first quarter of 2021. Our tourism partners now know what they have to do, what work lies ahead of them.
"They know this is not a 12-month challenge; it's a few months challenge. The good news is we are going to get through this, the cruise lines are going to get through this, but this is not something that will fix itself and take 30 days. It will take time."
He added that, in accordance with the phased return and trials sought by the CDC, the cruise industry will likely resume with test voyages involving crews playing the part of passengers.
Voyages to "nowhere", meaning cruises on the open sea, as well as sailing to their private islands where passengers can be kept in a COVID-19 free "bubble", will also feature prominently in the steps the industry will take to resume business prior to restarting calls on major commercial ports such as Nassau and Freeport.
While the cruise industry's return may still seem far-off for many Bahamian merchants, tour and excursion providers, straw vendors, hair braiders and others, Mr Maura nevertheless argued that the CDC's announcement completed a major step in the process and the responsibility shifts to others to implement the necessary COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
"What it means for us is that we now have a path forward, which is great news," he explained. "If persons were wondering if they would ever take a cruise again, they should be wondering no longer. This is a very important part of our tourism sector in The Bahamas, so it's great news.
"One of the challenges we have had as a port community is that we have yet to, just like the cruise lines were waiting on the plan from the CDC for the way forward, receive the plans from the cruise lines...."
While the cruise lines were delayed by the CDC, Mr Maura added: "My expectation is that in the very near future we're going to be receiving documentation from the various cruise lines spelling out what their various requirements are. The cruise lines will have their requirements and expectations, some of which will likely exceed what the CDC has.
"The cruise lines have to make sure they're bulletproof as they resume sailing. They are going to come to the Government, come to the ports and come to the cities, and tell those stakeholders what is required to ensure they do business.
"While the port community has also been waiting on the CDC and the cruise lines, we have also been waiting on the Government. The Government has not specifically laid out what its requirements are. That's something we are waiting on. There's a lot of dialogue, lot of collaboration that has to happen, and what we cannot have is this operating in silos. All have to be at the table."
Noting that much work has already been done to pave the way for the cruise industry's return, with the lines investing in reconfigured ships, health protocols, testing and onboard medical and quarantine facilities, Mr Maura added: "It's not as if we're starting from zero.
"The industry would tell you that they're starting well past the 50-yard line; it's not like we're starting on the one yard line. We're well past the 50-yard line. Some could be at the 60-yard line, some may be at the 80-yard line, but in a game it takes an awful lot of work to get across the goal line, and that's what we have to do."