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People are vacationing again on cruise ships following a COVID-19 decline


Cruise ships are making a comeback. South Florida's cruise companies are buoyed by a surge in passengers, but they're still paying for the pandemic interrupting their business. From member station WLRN in Miami, Tom Hudson reports.

TOM HUDSON, BYLINE: This is what PortMiami's Terminal B sounded like in May of 2021. It was a beautiful day to cruise. The sun was shining. It was in the mid-80s with a slight breeze. Two ships sat dockside, but there were no crew members, no stevedores, no passengers. The cruise business was still closed because of COVID-19.


HUDSON: And here's what PortMiami sounded like a couple of weeks ago as thousands of passengers lined up to board the Disney Magic for a five-day cruise. The cruise business has come, well, cruising back, stronger than it was before the COVID-19 virus shut down sailing, costing tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars.


JASON LIBERTY: I'm thrilled to share with you this morning our strong second-quarter results and another step change in the trajectory of our business.

HUDSON: That's Jason Liberty, the CEO of Royal Caribbean Group, based in Miami. He was speaking on a conference call after the company released its second-quarter financial results last month.


LIBERTY: We not only delivered another outstanding quarter that significantly exceeded expectations but are also increasing our full-year earnings guidance by another 33%.

HUDSON: The cruise operator expects this year's profits to be stronger than it predicted just a few months ago. And it's not alone in riding this wave of passenger demand.


JOSH WEINSTEIN: There was much to celebrate in the second quarter.

HUDSON: This is Josh Weinstein, the CEO of Carnival Corporation, based in Doral, Fla.


WEINSTEIN: We just hit all-time highs for bookings and customer deposits. And remarkably, we are still experiencing a phenomenal wave season which started early, gained strength and is still going strong midway through the year.

HUDSON: And it was a similar message from Harry Sommer, the CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings in Miami, though the company's forecast was less than anticipated.


HARRY SOMMER: We achieved record revenue of 2.2 billion in the second quarter, an increase of 33% over the same period in 2019.

JAIME KATZ: I think that these companies have really been able to figure out how to run in a much more efficient way.

HUDSON: This is Jaime Katz. She's a stock analyst at Morningstar.

KATZ: This time off has really given these management teams a way to think about, how do we optimize revenue management? And I think that has permitted these companies to come back with really diplomatic pricing tactics.

HUDSON: Diplomatic pricing. Instead of simply offering deep discounts to fill up the ships, package together amenities.


QUEEN: (Singing) Oh, how I want to be free.

HUDSON: This allows the cruise ships to add or subtract items based on demand. The more people buying, the fewer amenities included in the base price.


QUEEN: (Singing) I want to break free.


HUDSON: Strong demand has allowed the companies to keep prices up. And they need the cash. This trio of South Florida-based cruise giants have lost tens of billions of dollars combined since the beginning of the pandemic. All three were profitable in the second quarter if you don't count the hundreds of millions of dollars they spent paying interest on loans. But they have to pay that interest, and it takes a big bite out of profits. Those loans kept the companies afloat when they weren't allowed to sail. Together, these three big cruise companies owe almost $70 billion to lenders.

PETER TROMBETTA: It's still massive. It's still, you know, much higher than it was pre-pandemic.

HUDSON: Pete Trombetta is a senior analyst with Moody's, the credit rating agency. The companies have spent more paying interest on those loans this year than they have spent paying for fuel for their ships.

TROMBETTA: They had to borrow to stay alive. So it's going to take time for them to start tackling that debt. But they're definitely on the right path.

HUDSON: This big rebound of cruising is big for South Florida, with two of the top three busiest cruise ports in the world. Already this year, the number of passengers moving through Port Everglades is up 77% compared to a year ago. The Fort Lauderdale port has been renovating a terminal that will be dedicated to Disney in time for the winter cruise season later this year. And this comes after renovating a separate terminal earlier this year for Royal Caribbean's Celebrity brand, says director Jonathan Daniels.

JONATHAN DANIELS: We're actually hiring additional people. We're creating our own cruise operations department, which the port has never had.

HUDSON: More passengers mean more revenue for Miami-Dade and Broward counties in Florida, the owners of the ports. Cruise passenger revenue in Miami fell 95% when ships were ordered to stop sailing. It already tops $100 million this fiscal year, on par with 2019, the year before the pandemic put a stop to cruises.


NORAH O'DONNELL: Now to a developing story in South Florida, where two cruise ships carrying passengers with coronavirus have been allowed to dock. For some on board...


CARLOS SUAREZ: Another cruise ship with COVID-positive passengers has docked at PortMiami.

HUDSON: Some of the early COVID cases and headlines came from cruise ships.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: After weeks in limbo at sea, overnight, two Holland-American cruise ships...

HUDSON: Some ships were quarantined and not allowed to dock for days over fears of passengers spreading the virus on shore.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The Coast Guard is currently monitoring more than 50,000 crew members on various ships that are in U.S. waters.

HUDSON: Thousands of crew members remained on board other ships for sometimes months after the industry was ordered to suspend operations. It added up to plenty of negative publicity at the time, but it has not hurt the optimism now from the industry's CEOs.


WEINSTEIN: We are clearly gaining momentum on an upward trajectory.

LIBERTY: Clearly, the very healthy demand environment we are seeing is quite encouraging.

SOMMER: This acceleration in demand, the record booking levels really are increasing our optimism about 2024.

HUDSON: In order for that optimism to be realized, the industry needs to continue attracting first-time cruisers and converting them into repeat customers. Worldwide, one out of every three cruise passengers are at least 60 years old. But the average age for passengers sailing in the Caribbean, where ships from South Florida travel, is in the mid-40s. Joe Cilli is an assistant dean at Florida International University and creator of the school's cruise line operations management degree.

JOE CILLI: You're starting to see somewhat of a trend of, let's lure a younger demographic here. And that's not related to the family cruises with all of the, you know, waterslides and go-karts and things like that on it.

HUDSON: Shareholders certainly are optimistic about the fortunes of the firms. Norwegian stock was up almost 80% in the first half of the year. Carnival and Royal Caribbean shares more than doubled in price during that same time period. In fact, Royal Caribbean stock has almost returned to its pre-pandemic price. For NPR News, I'm Tom Hudson in Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDISH GAMBINO SONG, "REDBONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Hudson
In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.Hudson was most recently the co-anchor and managing editor of Nightly Business Report on Public Television. In that position Hudson reported on topics such as Federal Reserve interest rate policy, agriculture and global trade. Prior to co-anchoring NBR, he was host and managing editor of the nationally syndicated financial television program “First Business.” He overhauled the existing program leading to a 20 percent increase in distribution in his first year with the program.Tom also reported and anchored market coverage for the groundbreaking web-based financial news service, WebFN. Beginning in 2001, WebFN was among the first live online streaming video outlets. While there he reported regularly from the Chicago Board Options Exchange, Chicago Board of Trade and the CME. Additionally, he created original business news and information programming for the investor channel of a large e-brokerage firm distributed to six large market CBS Radio stations. Before his jump to television and broadband, Tom co-anchored morning drive for the former all-news, heritage 50kw WMAQ-AM/Chicago. He spent the better part of a decade in general news as anchor, reporter, manager and talk show host in several markets covering a wide variety of stories and topics.He has served as a member of the adjunct faculty in the Journalism Department of Columbia College Chicago and has been a frequent guest on other TV and radio programs as well as a guest speaker at universities on communications, journalism and business.Tom writes a weekly column for the Miami Herald and the McClatchy-Tribune News Service. He appears regularly on KNX-AM/Los Angeles and WBBM-AM/Chicago for commentary on the economy and investment markets.While Tom was co-anchoring and managing NBR, the program was awarded the 2012 Program of Excellence Award by American Public Television. Tom also has been awarded two National Press Foundation fellowships including one for the Wharton Seminars for Business Journalists in 2006. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Iowa and is the recipient of several professional honors and awards for his work in journalism.He is married with two boys who tend to wake up early on the weekends.