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Cruise ships docked at Miami port in Florida on March 18, 2020.CARLOS BARRIA/Reuters

For the Gaudette boys, there are few things more exciting than seeing Mickey Mouse – except maybe when the iconic Disney character’s big-eared silhouettes are on the twin smokestacks of a giant cruise ship, waiting to take them on a surprise four-day, round-trip voyage to the Bahamas from Miami.

Ayden, 9, and his younger brother, Miles, 7, had trouble containing their excitement as they waited with their mother, Samantha, and father, Brian, this past week to board the 294-metre Disney Magic, the uppermost of its 11 decks towering above Terminal C at the Port of Miami, now known as PortMiami, the world’s busiest cruise port.

Enticed by special package prices as low as US$700 a person and comprehensive COVID-19 protocols, the Gaudettes made the trip from Worcester, Mass., near Boston for their first experience on a cruise ship. Both parents were vaccinated; they were all tested prior to boarding. All were masked and expecting to follow strict mask rules while on the ship.

“We did our homework, we reviewed all the protocols and the prices were really good,” Mr. Gaudette said. “You have to accept that there is some risk in everything you do, but we are careful and satisfied that the cruise line is taking proper precautions.”

For the cruise industry, struggling to recover from a pandemic that laid it low, first-time customers like the Gaudettes are a welcome sign of new life. The lockdown on cruises, triggered by high-profile onboard outbreaks of the coronavirus in the spring of 2020, lasted more than a year. Not until June, 2021, did the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allow ships to sail again, and only then with tight health protocols.

The cruise industry has complied, with vaccination requirements, testing and onboard mask protocols. These restrictions are not sitting well with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is fighting a court battle to stop cruise lines from requiring proof of vaccination for passengers travelling from the state’s ports, a position consistent with his broader rejection of vaccination mandates.

For Florida, a quick rebound in this vital industry is critical. The world’s three busiest cruise ports are PortMiami, Port Canaveral, 80 kilometres east of Orlando, and Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. Together, they served nearly 15 million customers a year before the pandemic – PortMiami alone accounted for nearly seven million of those.

Further, the world’s top three cruise companies – Carnival Corp., Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings – are all headquartered in Miami. Together, these companies account for about 75 per cent of the global cruise business, with combined sales of about US$38-billion in 2019.

But these companies are struggling to get back to prepandemic numbers. In September, Carnival reported steep third-quarter losses. Three weeks ago, Royal Caribbean reported worse-than-expected third-quarter earnings and revenue as demand was depressed by lingering COVID-19 fears.

“We think the cruise industry will be one of the last travel sectors to recover from COVID,” Jamie Rollo, an equity analyst at Morgan Stanley, said in a report on the Royal Caribbean results. “Cruising needs not just international travel to return but ports to reopen, authorities to permit cruising, customer confidence to return, and ships to be physically relocated/recrewed.”

Mr. Rollo predicted 2022 would be a transition year for the industry, with companies not recovering to prepandemic performance until 2023 – and even then, earnings per share would be challenged.

In announcing his company’s third-quarter results, Carnival president and chief executive officer Arnold Donald said key metrics, such as booking volumes for future cruises and customer deposits, showed gradual improvement from earlier in the year.

“Our protocols have been working well and are enabling us to build occupancy levels as we return more ships to service,” Mr. Donald said. “Looking forward, we continue to work toward resuming full guest cruise operations by next spring, in time for our important summer season, where we make the bulk of our operating profit.”

As important as new customers like the Gaudette family are to the industry, frequent cruisers such as Tim and Michelle Poplin are the backbone of the recovery. The Fort Lauderdale couple, who took two to three cruises a year before the pandemic, were in line with their two small children for the Disney Magic cruise, their first since 2019.

“We’re regulars, and we’ve been itching to get back,” Ms. Poplin said. She said she was confident in the precautions taken by Disney but also took some comfort in knowing the Disney Magic is one of Disney Cruise Line’s smaller ships, carrying 2,700 passengers.

Bucking a trend that has many industries struggling with worker shortages, the cruise industry has had some success recalling trained workers made idle during the lockdown.

“It very exciting to be back working again,” said Sophia Mkheidze, one of 950 crew members aboard the US$400-million Disney Magic. “I really missed it.”

For nine-year-old Ayden Gaudette, the blasts of the ship’s horn signalling its departure couldn’t come soon enough. Most exciting, he said, was the ship’s planned stopover at the Disney Castaway Cay, the company’s private resort island in the Bahamas.

“I can’t wait to see all the sea life in the Bahamas,” he said, trying to stay still. “Let’s get going.”

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