(7:45 a.m. EDT) -- Norwegian Cruise Line is set to return with three ships this summer sailing from homeports outside the United States.
The cruise line announced today it will base Norwegian Joy in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and Norwegian Gem in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, in August. A third ship, Norwegian Jade, will sail from Athens from July 25. All passengers and crew will be required to show proof of vaccination.
"Over a year after we initially suspended sailings, the time has finally come when we can provide our loyal guests with the news of our great cruise comeback," Norwegian Cruise Line President and CEO Harry Sommer said in a news release. "We have been working diligently towards our resumption of operations, focusing on the guest experience with health and safety at the forefront. The growing availability of the COVID-19 vaccine has been a game changer. The vaccine, combined with our science-backed health and safety protocols, will help us provide our guests with what we believe will be the healthiest and safest vacation at sea."
The line joins a handful mandating all passengers be vaccinated, including Cunard, Princess Cruises, Crystal and P&O Cruises in the U.K.
Norwegian's vaccine requirement runs through October 31, and because children currently aren't being vaccinated worldwide, kids likely won't be sailing these itineraries, a fact Sommer acknowledged weighed heavily on a cruise line known for Free at Sea promotions aimed at kids sailing free and ships loaded with activities designed for families.
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"We want to show the government authorities out there that we can execute a wonderful guest experience with 100 percent vaccination," Sommer told Cruise Critic exclusively. "So for the first few months, it seemed to be the right decision to make. ... We hope starting November 1st forward, we'll be at a different phase of this where prevalence will be much lower everywhere, and that we will be able to go to up to a modified plan."
Norwegian joins a growing segment of cruise lines that are looking to restart cruising in homeports outside of the U.S., where cruising is on hold because of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's mandates around a conditional return. Royal Caribbean Group, which owns Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Silversea, announced new itineraries from Bermuda, The Bahamas, St. Maarten, Greece and Cyprus. Crystal Cruises will sail Bahamas cruises as well as itineraries around Iceland on its new ship Crystal Endeavor.
Starting July 25, NCL will offer seven-night cruises to the Greek Isles on Norwegian Jade from Athens (Piraeus). The cruise line also will offer week-long itineraries from Montego Bay, Jamaica, on Norwegian Joy starting August 7, and seven-night journeys on Norwegian Gem starting August 15 from Punta Cana (La Romana), Dominican Republic.
Ships will begin sailing at 60 percent capacity, then ramp up, adding 20 percent more every 30 days.
In addition to the vaccine requirement, all passengers will need at least two COVID antigen tests -- one on arrival to the cruise terminal and a second before guests disembark -- which Norwegian will pay for and facilitate.
Policies around mask-wearing and social distancing will be decided on as the return grows closer, as Norwegian expects science and mandates on land will continue to evolve and help inform the latest decisions for cruise ships. The cruise line will require passengers take only ship sponsored shore excursions through September 1, after which time they're free to explore on their own.
Sommer also notes the fundamental Norwegian cruise experience will be in place: Laser tag, spas, fitness centers, casinos, virtual reality centers, pools and the like will be open. Cruises promise to deliver on the fun.
"Everything on the ship is going to be operating," Sommer said. "We think that vaccines from that perspective are the game changer, because it allows us to operate everything and still be safe, which is critical."
The news of the return comes a day after Norwegian's parent company, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, issued a proposal to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for sailing resumption from ports in the United States starting July 4. NCLH, which also operates Regent Seven Seas and Oceania, submitted a letter to the CDC defining a cruising resumption plan. The plan relies heavily on its SailSAFE Health and Safety protocols developed in conjunction with experts including those from the Healthy Sail Panel, developed jointly with Royal Caribbean Group.
Sommer notes the three-ship return "is the start; it's not the end," adding that if the CDC allows for cruises to return from U.S. ports, the line would add itineraries from U.S. ports. If not, the cruise line, which has a 17-ship fleet, could sail additional itineraries from Europe.
"We're just taking a measured, thoughtful approach. We think we can start at about one ship a week. So we're announcing the first three," Sommer said, adding that cruisers could see another announcement in another few weeks, and so on. "We're going to keep on going until our entire fleet of 17 ships are in the water. We hope some of them will be in the United States, but one way or another, we are going to get 17 ships in the water."
In addition, Norwegian has canceled all July and August itineraries aboard Norwegian Breakaway, Dawn, Escape, Getaway, Sky, Spirit, Star and Sun. Voyages aboard Norwegian Epic are canceled through September 1, and sailings on Norwegian Pearl through November 7.
The cruise line did not announce cancellations on Norwegian Encore, Bliss or Jewel, or Pride of America, which sails roundtrip Hawaiian voyages.
Norwegian also extended its Peace of Mind Cancellation policy to cruises booked by April 30 with embarkation dates through October 31.