JACKSONVILLE, Florida. – The cruise industry is struggling to rebuild its strength after two years of confinement and struggle due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Monday, the newest cruise ship operating from JaxPort was set to launch another voyage – the ship’s second since the start of the cruise season earlier this month. The ship, which holds just over 300 passengers, was due to set sail at 6 p.m.
News4JAX was invited to visit the Ocean Voyager as it resets for its next voyage. The ship had just completed its maiden voyage, passing through seven ports in 12 days.
It is the first liner to operate from JaxPort since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
For the company and JaxPort, it represents a symbolic comeback for the cruise industry, which has seen a huge downturn during the pandemic. Now, with COVID-19 fading again, industry officials are more optimistic that this summer will be the strongest since 2019.
Ocean Voyager is operated by American Queen Voyages, whose founder and chairman John Waggoner said it felt like a homecoming.
“We’ve been in Jacksonville for 25 years because we operate the Mayport Ferry through our ferry division. So for us, it’s like coming home, and the boats were built here in Jacksonville and Atlantic Marine,” Wagoner said. “So yeah, a lot of Jacksonville ties.”
The atmosphere at Ocean Voyager was clean and comfortable, and the food was spectacular. Yet society and the cruise industry as a whole are working beyond a crushing drop from the pandemic.
“The pandemic was just devastating. For us, it was really because it was the first time in my career at Marine Creek that the feds called us in and shut us down,” Wagoner said.
In January 2020, stock prices fell sharply for Carnival and Norwegian cruise lines. And passenger numbers have deflated after the industry shut down for months amid the pandemic.
This is what the cruise industry hopes to recover from. And as the cruise season kicked off on Feb. 11, JaxPort chief operating officer Fred Wong said the launch of a strong cruise industry also impacts many others.
“We call it our hidden gem. The local economy here definitely benefits. But when it comes to our golf, our beaches, our restaurants, it’s something that has to be a home here in JaxPort,” Wong said.
Masks aren’t mandatory for guests aboard the ship, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t COVID-19 safety protocols. To be allowed on board, you must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and obtain a negative PCR test within 48 hours of departure.
Carnival Cruise Line announced that on March 1, the company will only recommend face masks to travelers, but not require them.
Florida’s five ports represent a large part of the country’s cruise industry. According to the Cruise Lines International Association, nearly 60% of cruise ship passengers in 2019 departed from one of Florida’s ports. This represents approximately 5 million passengers.
But the economic impact is even more widespread, as the cruise industry sustains jobs and supports other industries like hospitality, retail and restaurants.
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