One by one, passengers removed their masks and rejoiced as they passed health and safety checks to board the first cruise ship to leave North America since the pandemic was declared in March 2020.
A woman threw her bag on the floor and began to jiggle to the rhythm of the Caribbean calypso being played in the reception hall. Another triumphantly thumped his fists with a crew member before hugging him, while an older man stood still and stared at the delighted guests, his eyes filling with tears as he dealt with reality to be back on a cruise, one of the more than 400 he took in his lifetime.
“We’re back, we’re home,” a passenger shouted as she stepped into the ship.
“Welcome, ma’am,” replied a crew member with a dazzling smile. “We missed you.”
For many of the more than 600 passengers boarding the Celebrity Millennium, operated by Royal Caribbean’s Celebrity Cruises, from the Caribbean island of St. Martin on Saturday, this was the moment they dreamed of over the past 15 months, as Cruise ships remained docked in ports, even after vaccinations were rolled out in the United States and people resumed traveling.
For the ship’s 650 crew, the event was equally joyous, bringing relief after a grueling year without a job or a steady income.
“It was very difficult to survive at home for 14 months,” said Donald Sihombing, a 33-year-old cabin attendant from Indonesia. “I feel very happy and lucky to be back. There are still so many people who have to wait for cruises to start in America to be able to work again. “
Major cruise lines are preparing to restart operations from U.S. ports this summer, with Celebrity Edge set to be the first, leaving Fort Lauderdale, Fla. On June 26 with full crew and at least 95 % of passengers fully vaccinated, according to guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But those plans could be disrupted if Florida does not exempt cruise passengers from a recently enacted state law prohibiting companies from requiring proof of vaccination from people seeking to use their services.
Celebrity is currently in talks with the CDC and Florida state authorities and is optimistic that a solution will be found in time for shipping. Susan Lomax, the company’s associate vice president for global public relations, said she will continue to offer vaccinated trips to ensure the health and safety of guests, crew and local communities at destinations visited.
Here are some takeaways from the first major international cruise with U.S. passengers since 2020. The seven-day cruise itinerary from St. Maarten included stops in Barbados, Aruba, and Curacao.
Put your papers in order before boarding
To board the Celebrity Millennium, all adult passengers had to complete a health questionnaire and present proof of vaccination and a negative PCR test. Additionally, Saint-Martin requires visitors to present a printed copy of its own medical screening document, which must be authorized in advance.
The check-in process begins at home, through the Celebrity app or website, which allows you to scan your passport, fill out paperwork, and reserve a time slot for boarding. Once all the steps are completed, the system generates an express pass designed to minimize contact and speed up boarding procedures. In the departures hall, the pass was scanned and the vaccination and test certificates were reviewed by staff, and then guests were allowed to enter the ship.
Expect new technology and modified systems
Those who sail regularly will be familiar with the muster drill, a safety drill that typically requires passengers to muster into a cramped muster station and attend a safety demonstration that lasts 30 minutes or more. One passenger described the process as “miserable”.
This week, Celebrity launched its new e-muster system, which allows passengers to take a tutorial on their electronic devices, showing them how to wear life jackets and familiarizing them with the sound of emergency signals. Once on board, passengers simply walk to their designated staging area and receive a small sticker to affix to their room card to show that they have completed the process.
Upon boarding, guests were allowed to go directly to their rooms. (Before the pandemic, they had to wait until 1 p.m.) All rooms were equipped with hand sanitizer and face masks, and were sanitized daily.
The buffet lives (but not itself)
Some cruise fans worried that cruise buffets would be done away with in the post-pandemic era, but at the Oceanview Cafe on the 10th deck of the Celebrity Millennium, buffet stations were in full force. The main difference was that the food was served by the crew members.
When customers enter the restaurant, they must first wash their hands at the lobby sinks – a requirement even before the pandemic. Then they can walk from station to station indicating what they want the staff to allocate.
You will meet happy guests
After a frustrating year of booking multiple cruises and then canceling or postponing them, many guests were thrilled to be back on a ship, even if they weren’t sure what to expect.
“We have sailed around 28 times on all varieties of ships, but with this crazy virus we didn’t know what it would look like and feel, so we wanted to try it out and see if we felt safe,” said Squirrel Simpson, 68, a cruise enthusiast from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, who sat with her husband at the pool bar sipping mimosa.
His verdict: “It’s just amazing. It’s just like we’re back before the days of the pandemic and reliving – interacting with people without masks, eating in restaurants, seeing shows. It’s a dream.”
Shore excursions differ from port to port
Usually, when a cruise ship calls at a port, passengers can go on excursions organized by the cruise company or are free to explore the destination independently for a set time.
Coronavirus restrictions in Barbados, the first port of call, meant passengers were only allowed to take “bubble tours” designed to limit interactions with locals.
In the second stop, Aruba, guests were free to travel on their own and many jumped at the chance.
“It’s really cool to get to a new place on a cruise ship and come down and walk around like before,” said Marni Turner, 52, a longtime cruiser from Florida. “But it’s weird having to put the mask back on and worrying about COVID. It feels a lot safer and more comfortable on board.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.