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Royal Caribbean's CEO on CDC Battles, Covid, and the Cruise Line's Darkest Times

Covid caused a long dark period for the cruise industry from March 2020 through July 2021. Michael Bayley talks about what that time was like.
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For about 16 months, the entire cruise industry sat in limbo as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) failed to budge on its no-sail order that kept ships from leaving from ports in the United States. While that order was in place, Royal Caribbean International (RCL) - Get Free Report was actively working with rival Norwegian Cruise Line  (NCLH) - Get Free Report to create the "Healthy Sail Panel," a group of medical and cruise industry experts working to help the industry safely return.

"Through research and their relevant experience in various disciplines including public health, infectious diseases, biosecurity, hospitality, and marine operations, the panelists have identified more than 70 recommendations across five focus areas," the company shared on a web page.

Royal Caribbean CEO and President Michael Bayley shared his thoughts on the industry's shutdown in an interview with TheStreet.

"It was a dark, terrible period," he said. And you know, the shutdown of our operations and trying to repatriate 50,000 crew to 100 countries was unbelievably challenging."

The biggest challenge, Bayley explained, was dealing with governments all around the world, many of which did not have answers.

"We dealt with so many different government groups who were 'yes, no, no, no, yes.' It was truly a nightmare shutting down operations and then not knowing anything," he added. "Dealing with these various health authorities who honestly didn't know anything. It was deeply dark and depressing for a long time. And, quite honestly, I know it sounds maybe overly dramatic. But I think I and many, many other people were kind of a wee bit traumatized by it in many ways."

Royal Caribbean's Darkest Days

In those early days and over the next year, Bayley was working on not only getting crew home but trying to figure out how to get ships back to sea. The industry made significant changed--guided by the Healthy Sail Panel in Royal Caribbean's case--but the U.S. government wasn't listening. 

"We couldn't work. We couldn't get anyone from the CDC to work with us," he said.

Eventually, however, the CDC responded and dark days started to get a little lighter.

And finally, when we did get to work with the CDC -- and I was on the key industry team along with Josh Weinstein from Carnival  (CCL) - Get Free Report, and Gianni Onorato from MSC -- ...and when we started to talk to the CDC as an industry group, you know, we quickly started to make a lot of progress, because they understood that and we understood that we're not enemies, we have a shared vision of trying to make it all work."

Once the work began with the industry and the CDC more openly communicating, it was still not an easy trip.

"But then, it was a long journey through two years of very difficult times," he said.

Freedom of the Seas INSIDE JS 102822

Royal Caribbean Gets Back to Sea

Royal Caribbean sailed Adventure of the Seas out of Nassau for much of the summer of 2021. That ship sailed with a limited capacity and a lot of covid-related protocols, but it was filled with American passengers even if it did not leave from an American port.

The true Royal Comeback, as the company branded its return, happened on July 2, 2021 when Freedom of the Seas sailed with about 800 passengers. Bayley was on board.

"I think, to your point when Freedom sailed, I was pretty much ready to lay on the floor. I was deeply emotional. In fact, I feel emotional now," he shared.

Bayley was highly visible on that cruise, interacting with passengers, crew, and the many Royal Caribbean executives who were on board.

"Yeah, it was very emotional. It's a strange world. Who would have thought it but, yeah, I remember that. I was very emotional. It was very difficult trying to keep yourself together," Bayley said. "But you are right. A lot of people in the crew, I had so many crew knocking on my room door just to say how happy they were."