(4:30 p.m. EDT) -- After a successful short season in Norway, the luxury small ship cruise line SeaDream Yacht Club planning to resume sailing in the Caribbean in November -- the only luxury cruise line right now to do so.
In a seminar Thursday, executives from the company outlined what they learned in Norway and told line loyalists (known as SeaDreamers) about what the Caribbean season could look like.
While final decisions have not been made, the line is leaning toward scrapping the current itineraries and running a series of weeklong cruises that begin and end in Barbados. Possible port stops would be St. Vincent & the Grenadines and Grenada.
The islands were chosen because they have been friendly to lines such as SeaDream, which has two 100-passenger yachts, SeaDream I and SeaDream II, as well as international tourists, Emilio Freeman, vice president of destinations, said.
"We want to go someplace that we're welcome," he said. The islands are also off the beaten path and have the upscale cachet that SeaDream passengers look for in the Caribbean, he said.
Extensive COVID-19 Testing Requirements
Starting in the Caribbean this fall is not without its challenges. For one, U.S. passengers coming to Barbados might have to take as many as three COVID-19 tests before boarding the ship, said Andreas Brynestad, SeaDream Executive Vice President (and the son of line founder and owner Atle Brynestad).
The Barbados government requires anyone entering the country to present a negative COVID-19 test, he said. People from high-risk countries such as the U.S. will likely have to take a second test once they land in the country. And finally, SeaDream plans to test everyone again before they embark.
The line also will likely conduct temperature checks upon returning to the ship from ports. But as of now, there are no plans to restrict passengers getting off the ship from going off on their own, which has been an emerging trend in COVID-19 era cruising in Europe.
"At this stage, we have not been asked to coordinate SeaDream-only activities on shore," Freeman said.
The line acknowledged that extensive testing and changing requirements add uncertainty for different nationalities. But even if Americans don't show up in high numbers, Barbados has enough flights from international destinations such as the U.K. that a successful season could be possible without them, Brynestad said. As the line discovered with its Norwegian sailings this summer, it's possible to develop new customer bases in a hurry.
Norwegian Season Recap
During the seminar, the executives recapped the line's Norwegian season, which they declared a success. The cruise line, which started sailing in Norway in late June, was the first luxury line to return to the sea after the global cruising pause (see photos from the first cruise back).
Despite a COVID-19 scare from a departed guest in August, which resulted in the current passengers and crew briefly quarantining to get tested, the cruises were completed without an outbreak.
"We were scared," Brynestad said. "We pulled out all the protocols." He noted that his mother was onboard. When he called her, she was quarantined in her room, having lobster and Champagne from room service.
Normally it takes two years to develop a new itinerary, but the line was able to come up with the Norwegian ones within six weeks, Freeman said. Originally, they started with one ship, but because demand was so high, the second one was added. The trips stopped in small Norwegian ports that were off the beaten path, although flight-seeing excursions were added to Flam and Geiringer so people could see those better-known fjords if they wanted to, he said.
"We only needed 200 people a week to be successful, and we got that," Freeman said.
SeaDream has instituted numerous health and safety protocols, which were outlined by Sudesh Kishore, senior vice president for hotel operations. Among them: luggage sanitation; no touching such as hugs or handshakes; no self-serve buffets; and social distancing in the bars and lounges, with seats marked off.
In addition, public areas are disinfected with fogger and a special UV light is used for room sanitization. Spa treatments are planned with time in between for sanitization, and gym equipment is sanitized between use. The cabins each also have their own air system so there is no recirculated air, Brynestad said.
One disappointment for the line is that neither ship was able to get the planned refurbishments that were scheduled for this year. SeaDream also canceled construction of a planned expedition ship, but that happened before the pandemic began, in December 2019.
Caribbean To Themselves?
If SeaDream does go ahead with its November plans, it could be a trailblazer again. Several luxury lines, such as Seabourn and Crystal, have canceled cruises through the end of 2020.
Others, such as Silversea and Regent, have put themselves on a voluntary pause through October 31, 2020. Restarts for those lines is likely contingent on approval from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, which has yet to give the cruise lines guidance on resuming.
While SeaDream is a CLIA member, it is unique in that it rarely embarks or disembarks from U.S. ports. CDC's current ban on cruising is imposed on lines that sail from the United States.
The final decision on what to do in the Caribbean will be made in the next week or so, Brynestad said. The line is calling booked guests and asking for their feedback, offering refunds or future cruise credit of 125 percent.
New bookings are also eligible for an assurance program that allows guests to cancel due to COVID-19 up to the day of departure, line president Bob Lepisto said.
A lot will depend on what cruising guidelines that Barbados comes up with, Freeman said. "Those rules are being worked on as we speak," he said.