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Science has moved ahead of CDC's conditional sail order: Fain

Royal Caribbean Group is resuming cruises outside the US after proving it can do so safely, CEO Richard Fain said, adding that the science has moved beyond the seemingly stalled Centers for Disease Control and Prevention process.

Fain also expressed hope for a successful Europe season but couldn't make any guess about a late save for Alaska.

After carrying more than 100,000 cruisers with just 10 positive COVID-19 tests — handled without major disruption thanks to advanced contact tracing — Royal Caribbean already has proof of concept, Fain indicated.

The positive rate is 'remarkably low,' and everyone is tested, unlike on land, he noted during a virtual session with travel partners on Thursday.

Highly accurate contact tracing

'When we have cases, we have contact tracing of amazing sophistication, so we're able to catch the case early, isolate it and not disrupt either the vacations of the other guests but also not cause a problem to the local community,' Fain said.

'It's been very successful. The momentum is building ... More and more places are seeing it works, and so we're moving forward.'

The CDC framework for conditional sailing, meanwhile, remains in the first phase after 4.5 months.

'We still don't know what's required for Phase 2. That's pretty unworkable, for us and the CDC,' Fain said. 'We think the science has simply moved ahead of the conditional sail order.' It was a 'good process way back when but it's now out of date.

'We and the Healthy Sail Panel and others in the industry feel it's time to move on.'

Contact tracing 100% on ships

Since the CDC's order in October, there have been dramatic changes with vaccines, testing and contact tracing. Fain thinks Royal Caribbean's contact tracing doesn't get enough attention.

Ashore, it's hit or miss.

'On board the ship, we control the environment, we are able to identify your close contacts as the CDC defines them — everybody you've been within six feet of for a total of 15 minutes. It's 100% accurate. We're able to isolate the cases and make sure they remain isolated cases, and not a big outbreak.

'That, we believe, ought to be the basis for moving forward.'

Learnings from hundreds of cruises

Test cruises with volunteers are a component of the CDC framework.

'You can do theories ... but the industry has carried 350,000 guests [over] months and months, on hundreds of cruises, successfully,' Fain said.

'It works. It is safe. It is healthy.'

Other learnings: Cooperation and dialogue with local public health authorities, learning from each other, 'with our experience on the ship' married with health authorities' information on the disease in their area and the public health implications.

And the 'power of testing and contact tracing. If you've got that right, you can contain any COVID-19 positive test result.'

First-timers are sailing

A further learning: It's not just cruise loyalists willing to travel by ship now.

'That's an erroneous assumption we made,' the Royal Caribbean chief said. 'That simply isn't true at all.'

In Singapore, 80% of Royal Caribbean's customers have been on their first cruise, and on TUI in Europe, first-timers have been above pre-pandemic levels.

'Greece is going to be a big destination'

Citing Europe sailings on TUI, MSC and Costa and Royal Caribbean's upcoming Israel-Greece program, Fain hopes for a successful European season, adding that 'Greece is going to be a big destination.'

However, lines are dealing with regulatory hurdles in Europe and they need permission in advance because it takes months to activate a ship.

'Late permission,' Fain said, 'is equivalent to a denial.'

No bets on Alaska

As for the possibility of some semblance of an Alaska season, 'This one is less clear to me,' Fain told travel partners.

He expressed appreciation for support from Congress but wasn't confident enough to make a prediction.

Vaccination mandate permanent?

On cruises from Bermuda, the Bahamas, St. Maarten and Israel, crew and adult passenger vaccination are mandated.

(Plus, the company will provide, no charge, COVID-19 testing on board prior to disembarkation so travelers have those results, as required, to re-enter the US.)

Whether vaccination will be mandated in future, Fain said it depends on the science.

'We will change and we will adjust to that ... Part of what makes me proud to work at Royal Caribbean Group is that we are flexible. We do respond to the facts and the evidence.'