As cruise lines await an uncertain future in the United States, one major player is announcing plans to sail from Israel with vaccinated passengers and crew.
Royal Caribbean International announced Monday morning that its newest ship, Odyssey of the Seas, will start sailing from Haifa in May with Israeli passengers. The operator said it will be the first to offer “fully vaccinated sailings,” with crew and passengers older than 16 required to have a full course of the vaccine against COVID-19.
“Thanks to the millions of vaccines we have brought, I am proud that Israel will be the first country in the world to launch Royal Caribbean’s new flagship,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. “Royal Caribbean’s decision to come to Israel is a significant expression of confidence in our policy. This is an important economic, touristic moment for the State of Israel.”
Cruises will visit Greece and Cyprus. Both countries announced tourism agreements with Israel last month for vaccinated travelers, according to the Associated Press.
The Washington Post reported on Sunday that Israel has the fastest per capita pace of vaccinations of any country, with 4.6 million people — out of a population of about 9 million — getting at least one shot so far. More than a third of the population has gotten both doses.
“We continue to work closely with local authorities and governments around the world for a healthy return to sailing in various markets,” Royal Caribbean International spokesperson Lyan Sierra-Caro said in an email. “The health and safety of our guests, crew and the communities we visit will remain our top priority, and we will not sail until we are ready. With the vaccine rollout in Israel going so well, we felt it was wonderful opportunity to work with Israel and offer sailings for the market.”
It will be the company’s first time sailing a ship from Israel, though ships have stopped in the destination in the past.
“Israeli travelers will be looking to get away, relax with total peace of mind, and enjoy the travel experiences they are missing dearly; and that is what we do best,” Michael Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, said in a statement. “Sailing from Israel is an opportunity we have had our sights on for quite some time.”
Odyssey of the Seas was originally scheduled to debut in Rome in 2020, but delays in the shipyard pushed that to April 2021 before the latest adjustment.
The pandemic has devastated the cruise industry, forcing most ships to sit without passengers for more than a year. Health authorities and cruise operators around the world are working out the safest path back to sailing as destinations establish their own policies for visitors. In the United States, lines have been waiting for more details on what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will require of them before they can start the process of sailing again.
The cruises that have restarted, mostly in parts of Asia and Europe, have limited the number of people on board, required tests in advance of boarding, and put social distancing and mask rules in place.
Sierra-Caro said Odyssey of the Seas will sail at reduced capacity, but the company is working with authorities in Israel to determine what the number will be. The ship has room for 4,198 passengers with two people to a room.
Masks and physical distancing will be required on the sailings from Israel, Sierra-Caro said, but she added that “we anticipate that these protocols will likely evolve as we work with local authorities to adapt to real-time public health standards.”
The company said details on more health and safety measures would be announced later.
A smattering of small cruise lines including American Queen Steamboat Company, Saga Cruises and Crystal have said they will require passengers to be vaccinated to sail, while others have said they will mandate vaccinations for at least crew members.
In an earnings call last month, Royal Caribbean Group CEO Richard Fain called vaccines “the ultimate weapon” as the industry works to recover.
“As the vaccine distribution continues to accelerate, travel restrictions and advisories begin to ease and customer confidence begins to grow, we feel very optimistic about the future,” he said.