When Freedom of the Seas sailed from Miami on July 2, 2021, it marked Royal Caribbean International’s (RCL) – Get Royal Caribbean Group Report return to North American sailing after being shut down since March 2020.
That sailing has less than 1,000 people on it, mostly loyal cruisers eager to get back to sea no matter what the rules were (as well as a fair amount of company executives.
That ship can hold 4,375 passengers at full capacity, according to Ship Technology and on that July sailing, it felt empty and crew seemed to outnumber passengers.
At night, in the British Pub, the crowd was essentially me, two other journalists, and the occasional person who wandered by.
That made it, perhaps, too easy to get a drink, and while it was a wonderful experience, that sailing only felt normal when everyone onboard took to the upper decks to cheer sail away and celebrate the Fourth of July,
I sailed on Freedom on that July sailing, then again in September, October, November, December, and then again in May.
I sailed Odyssey of the Seas and Wonder of the Seas in between January and May.
The crowds got progressively bigger through the fall, but even the December sailing (a three-day weekend, which in pre-pandemic times would be at or near capacity) still had a limited capacity.
Royal Caribbean steadily increased the number of people on its ships, with some slight pauses in that as new covid variants popped up and Carnival Cruise Lines (CCL) – Get Carnival Corporation Report has followed roughly the same model.
Cruise Lines Capacity Is Coming Back
How crowded will my cruise be?
This has been a question seemingly every experienced cruiser has asked. In the summer and fall, that answer was “not at all,” and later “not as much as usual,” but the numbers of passengers onboard has slowly moved back to normal, even reaching it on some sailings.
Cruise lines generally don’t offer a lot of comment on why they might be limiting capacity when technically they no longer have.
Crew concerns, including not being able to onboard new crew members to allow for full sailings due to slow visa processing times and keeping rooms open fr potential covid quarantines have kept some ships below their full complement of passengers.
Demand, of course, factors in as well. Royal Caribbean CFO Naftali Holtz commented on where his company stands now during its first-quarter earnings call.
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“I’d like to comment on capacity and load factor expectations over the upcoming period. We plan to restart operations on all remaining ships by the end of June.
“We plan to operate about 10.3 million APCDs [available passenger cruise days] during the second quarter, and we expect load factors of approximately 75% to 80%,” he said.
“Our load factor expectations reflect the higher occupancy we are seeing in the Caribbean and lower expectations for repositioning voyages and early season Europe sailings.”
It’s clear that demand is a factor when it comes to why certain sailings are sailing with fewer passengers than others.
Carnival has had to limit the cabins it has been selling on its United Kingdom-based Cunard line due to staffing issues.
“As you may have seen in the news, the wider impact of Covid-19 is affecting hospitality and is disrupting airlines and as such this is impacting the number of crew members we are able to get to our ships,” said the company in a statement.
“We naturally want to ensure that all guests across the fleet experience the high standards of service on board that they would expect from Cunard and which we are committed to delivering,” the company added.
“We are therefore limiting the number of guests sailing as we build crew numbers back up.”
Normal Cruise Crowds Are Coming
Once staffing issues return to normal — something that is slowly happening — the biggest concern may be whether the economy slows demand.
Carnival CEO Arnold Donald said he expects his company to get close to normal over the summer during the cruise line’s first-quarter earnings call.
“We’re well on our way back to full cruise operations, with three-quarters of our capacity having resumed guest operations and a plan to return the balance of the fleet for the summer season. And while the conversation around covid-19 is greatly reduced, we still have to and are successfully actively managing,” he said.
And while neither Carnival’s nor Royal Caribbean’s CEO said it directly, passengers sailing this summer will likely experience passenger counts in line with tradition.
That does not mean some sailings won’t have limited capacities, or sell poorly, but many will not as long as demand remains within historical norms.