Independence of the Seas

A couple watches Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas sail from Galveston on July 1, 2021, after picking up crew members and resupplying. The liner is scheduled to depart Galveston on Aug. 1 with less than 95 percent of passengers vaccinated.

GALVESTON

The next phase of the return to cruising in Galveston is taking shape as Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines outlines plans to resume operations from the island port.

Before paying customers board the Independence of the Seas next month, the company will conduct a five-day test cruise from the Port of Galveston, officials said Thursday.

The Aug. 1 test cruise is meant to prove to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other entities that the company can sail safely without requiring a 95 percent vaccination rate among passengers.

If the test cruise is successful, the company could sail with fewer than 95 percent of its passengers being vaccinated.

CDC guidelines don’t give an exact definition of what makes a successful test cruise. After the cruise returns to port, Royal Caribbean will be required to track the health status of unvaccinated volunteers who participated in the drill and report back COVID test results to the government.

The company also must complete an after-action report describing deficiencies in its COVID mitigation plans and things it will change for revenue cruises.

After that, the CDC may give the ship permission to sail.

In early July, a senior Royal Caribbean administrator told a travel publication the goal of the company’s test cruises was to lower the vaccination threshold to allow more younger people, who can’t yet be vaccinated, aboard ships with their families.

“When the first set of potential regulations were published, it was such an obvious choice of the path that we had to go down,” Mark Tamis, Royal Caribbean’s senior vice president of hotel operations, told The Points Guy travel website and blog.

“Once there were two clear paths — 95 percent or under 95 percent — it wasn’t even really a consideration. We knew one path would allow us to have families, and one path would limit the number of families.”

Royal Caribbean announced Tuesday it would choose volunteers for test cruises from U.S. ports, including Galveston, from a pool of people who had signed up through an online portal. More than 350,000 people already had volunteered to participate in the test cruises, the company said.

If the test cruise is successful, the company will sail its first revenue cruise from the Port of Galveston on Aug. 15.

That cruise will be another step back to normal for the port, which went nearly 16 months without cruises because of restrictions put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cruises canceled since March 2020 have cost the port about $40 million in revenue, officials have said. The port makes money from cruises through tariffs imposed on cruise companies and from parking fees passengers pay.

The Royal Caribbean cruise will be the first test cruise from the Port of Galveston.

When Carnival Cruise Line began operating from Galveston earlier this month, officials said they had conducted practice cruises using employees.

To return to business, Carnival chose to abide by a CDC rule that allowed it to sail with paying passengers by requiring at least 95 percent of them to be vaccinated.

A Carnival spokesman on Thursday said the company would continue with its vaccination requirements in August sailings from Galveston.

Carnival said it hasn’t determined its rules for cruises in September and October.

On Thursday, the Carnival Breeze became the second cruise ship to resume operations from Galveston when it departed on a four-day voyage. As with the Carnival Vista, which resumed operations July 3, guests on the Breeze were asked to show proof of vaccinations before they boarded.

Royal Caribbean’s guidelines now call for people 12 years and older to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to sail. The company’s rules in Texas differ from its rules in Florida, where state laws have caused the company to “strongly recommend” but not require vaccinations.

Royal Caribbean didn’t respond to questions Wednesday about how its procedures might change if the early August test cruise goes smoothly.

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; john.ferguson@galvnews.com or on Twitter

@johnwferguson.

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