Barred from sailing for the last nine months because of the pandemic, several cruise ships are making their way to San Diego this month, but don’t expect to see thousands of passengers boarding or disembarking from the ocean liners.
The extended visit by the cruise ships belonging to Seattle-based Holland America is the first step toward getting certified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for the time when they will be able to begin welcoming passengers aboard next year. Among other things, the company has its eye on the 2021 Seattle-Alaska cruise season, which in normal years is big business from May to September.
For now, it’s not likely San Diego will see cruise lines resuming voyages until at least the spring, but even then it remains uncertain how many ships that normally sail out of the port will have met all the federal requirements.
The first of the four Holland America ships — the Koningsdam — arrived at the B Street Pier on Wednesday. Because the vessels had not previously been in U.S. waters, they are taking that step now in order to begin laboratory testing of crew members on board.
It is part of the first phase of the CDC process for the restart of cruising, which also requires the eventual launch of simulated voyages to test the ships’ ability to manage any outbreaks of COVID-19 on board.
In quick succession, three more Holland America vessels will sail to San Diego, with the last scheduled to arrive Jan. 11. Most of the ships are coming from locations in Europe. They will only spend only a day docked at the pier and most of the time will be anchored off the San Diego coast, with some periodically positioned in the outer anchorage just outside of San Diego Bay off the coast of Coronado. The Emerald Princess was set to sail to San Diego on Christmas Eve but is scheduled to move on to Los Angeles after its arrival.
Over the last several months, it has not been unusual to see one or two cruise ships moored off the California coast. Two Celebrity ships with crew members were in San Diego for quite some time, although one of the ships, the Eclipse, left a couple of weeks ago, bound for a shipyard in Singapore for maintenance, according to the San Diego Unified Port District.
During the time the Holland America ships are in San Diego, they will periodically return to the B Street Terminal to refuel and get more supplies. Each ship will average 90 to 120 crew members, who will not be allowed to disembark except for needed crew changes
“That’s the starting process for entering U.S. waters and beginning the various steps and ultimately getting approval to sail,” said Erik Elvejord, spokesman for Holland America. “Once we are docked and we ramp up, it will involve showing them (the CDC) our plans and protocols that they will have to approve. Then the next step is to request permission for the volunteer test cruise. We’re at the beginning stages right now.”
The CDC at the end of October lifted its longstanding no-sail order for ships plying U.S. waters but in its place imposed detailed requirements for the resumption of cruising.
The Port of San Diego said that after Holland America reached out about bringing its ships there to initiate the certification process, it was willing to oblige because of the long-term economic benefit to the region.
“We’re one of their main home ports and we do want crews to come back,” said Adam Deaton, a senior trade representative with the port. “It’s about giving themselves time to get resituated, and they will come back in the fall to do the full season and hopefully by then we will have the full rollout of vaccines. Our goal is to support them and the tourism economy once they get back up and running.”
Elvejord says it is hard to know how long the Holland America ships will remain in San Diego, given the involved process for securing clearances from the CDC, but he expects it will be at least two months. The line, which has paused its schedule until the end of March, is hopeful it will be ready in time to start the Alaska cruise season and possibly the tail end of the San Diego cruise season, which ends in June.
Another open question is whether the line will require its passengers to be vaccinated, something that it is currently weighing, Elvejord said.
Holland America, which normally home ports in San Diego during the city’s fall through spring cruise season, only has six remaining sailings still on the schedule for early 2021. In all, 41 of the line’s scheduled sailings were canceled since the start of the current season, according to the Port of San Diego.
Elvejord said it’s hard to know right now whether the cruise line will be able to get certified in time to make any of its last scheduled cruises out of San Diego.
“We’re really focused on Alaska and Europe now,” Elvejord said. “But because we’re going through the process with the CDC and we’re not sure of all the details, we will have to give it another month, month and a half to know. Hopefully, we can do a little bit (of San Diego cruises) before Alaska.”
The company expects to operate six ships on Alaska cruises in 2021 and 2022, sailing from Seattle, Vancouver B.C., and Whittier, Alaska. The newly introduced Koningsdam will sail from Vancouver, said Elvejord.
San Diego, which normally has a relatively robust cruise season between the fall and spring months, has lost nearly the entire season, with 119 cruises canceled since March. That translates to a $200 million hit to the regional economy, affecting everyone from restaurant and lodging businesses to transportation and security companies.
For the upcoming 2021-22 season, Holland America has scheduled 33 cruise calls, down significantly from the 47 it had planned for 2020-21. But that was also before the cruise line sold four of its ships earlier this year, which contributed to the downsized operation in San Diego.
For the remainder of the season, San Diego still has 54 sailings on the books for various lines, but it’s unknown how many of those will remain, Deaton said. Each line has separate plans, all of which are still dependent on sign-off from the CDC.
“I think the ships coming here is an encouraging step that shows cruising is on its way back and on the path to returning,” Deaton said. “Things aren’t back to normal but we’ll start seeing revenue coming back although I don’t know that we’ll see full ships. I’ve heard from various lines it looks like 60 percent on board initially, maybe ramping up to 75 percent and by the second season, I think you’d see full ships again.”