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It’s been a surreal five months since the cruise pause in March. The world’s fleet of more than 300 ships are riding at anchor all over the planet.  There is no sign yet of a unified protocol that might satisfy health authorities that operators can make their vessels safe, though much work has been started.

The 32 million passengers that the Cruise Lines International Association suggested would sail this year are reluctantly stuck at home – including tens of thousands of Cruise Passenger readers.

Yet if you subscribe to cruise line and travel agent newsletters, you’ll find a parallel universe of special offers, free drinks packages and dining deals on itineraries that some say are highly unlikely to sail.

This week, leading trade publication Skift questioned whether cruise lines should be selling tickets to holidays that might not happen.

The article quoted the powerful Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in America – the body that will ultimately decide when cruising in the world’s biggest market can begin.

Should cruise lines be selling tickets when there is no agreement as to when it is safe to sail?

“It is astonishing and it’s heartbreaking,” Dr. Martin Cetron, director for the division of global migration and quarantine at the CDC, told Skift.

“The reality is it’s not safe to sail right now in the setting of Covid with guest services,” Cetron said. “It was difficult sailing when they had no guests and crew only, and imagining their demographic and guests on board in the current climate is really hard. So to actively book in that setting is heartbreaking. But only they can tell you what they’re thinking about. Or maybe there is a level of denial of the magnitude of the problem and there’s a certain amount of wishful thinking in recovery.”

Cruise Passenger asked Cruise Lines International Association chair Adam Goldstein the same question during a briefing session for Asia Pacific media last week. Should the big ship lines be selling 2020 journeys unless they could be certain they would go ahead.

He said we’d have to ask each individual cruise line.

Joel Katz, managing director of CLIA Australasia, provided a little more clarity:

“While the precise timing of the resumption of cruise operations in Australia and New Zealand has not been determined, cruise lines are endeavouring to provide regular updates to customers and their travel agents on the status of voyage suspensions and any potential extensions. In many cases cruise lines have offered additional cancellation or postponement provisions for customers in order to provide reassurance.

“Cruise lines are conscious of the disruption and disappointment caused to guests with affected bookings and are working to provide clarity and assistance wherever possible in this challenging environment. In the meantime, cruise lines remain focussed on developing extensive measures to uphold the health and safety of guests, and continue to take guidance from health authorities and governments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

It’s true that some lines are likely to sail.  Coral Expeditions, the Aussie-flagged and crewed small-ship adventure company is ready to sail. And Ponant, APT and others are plotting to sail the Kimberleys.

And the cruise industry is fighting to save its local season, which usually kicks off in September in Australia and runs to March 2021.

But the big ship international lines have a ways to go before they will be cleared to sail our waters.

Indeed, this week Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line and Oceania Cruises announced they’d be halting cruise operations through November 1 at the very earliest.

According to a recent report by USA Today, many cruisers have yet to recoup refunds from cancelled cruises as a result of the CDC’s no-sail order and cruise cancellations. As a result, the US government is about to change the regulations governing refund policies.

While many are trying to smooth refund systems as they try and cope with the huge numbers of cancellations forced on them by the pandemic, it’s hard to see how selling more tickets for journeys that may never leave port helps boost the confidence of cruisers that the industry is putting their interests first.

One travel agent has drawn a line in the sand.  Helloworld’s Circular Quay office is following the lead of the group’s chair and refusing to sell cruises in 2020, suggesting customers book 2021 instead.

Getting in touch with Helloworld, if you are from the media, is tough.  But Cruise Passenger reporter Brittany Lazarus emailed a branch to ask:

  • Is Helloworld selling cruises that depart in 2020?
  • Do you believe the international and domestic cruises scheduled to leave in 2020 from October will be able to cruise?
  • Would you recommend booking a cruise that is due to depart in 2020?

The response:  “Hi Brittany, The answer to all questions is no, no, and no.”

The Helloworld office is echoing the predictions of its CEO, Andrew Burnes, who told staff earlier this year the sector will return to popularity, but only after increased health and safety measures – and that this was unlikely before mid next year.

In June, he urged lines to refrain from selling cruises that simply won’t sail for fear they are damaging the public’s confidence in the industry.

No-one from Helloworld’s head office was available to tell Cruise Passenger if not selling cruises for 2020 was company policy, though none appear on their website..

Meanwhile, in what is being hailed as a significant move, the CDC has requested anyone, including passengers, make submissions about how cruise lines can make provision for coping with coronavirus.

All relevant comments will be posted without change to www.regulations.gov.

The CDC has posed 28 questions covering all aspects of operations and policies, including cruise lengths, how many can occupy staterooms and should crew sleep in single cabins.

Written comments will be accepted until Sept. 21.

Tell us what you think of this story below.

Additional reporting:  Brittany Lazarus