Carnival Radiance sits anchored in Queensway Bay as passengers board for its next excursion to Ensenada, Mexico Friday, March 18, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

After being forced to anchor for well over a year, the recovery for the cruise industry is going to take time. Carnival Cruise Lines jump-started operations in July after a 16-month hiatus and, while loyal customers were ready to board, the company is still trailing behind pre-pandemic levels, according to Chief Communications Officer Chris Chiames.

“We’re not there yet—2019 was a great year for Carnival,” Chiames said. “So we still have work to do to get back to those levels.”

Carnival’s Long Beach operations restarted in late August when the Panorama, the newest and largest ship based in the city, departed for a seven-day excursion along the Mexican Riviera. The first new cruise ship on the West Coast in almost 20 years, Panorama can accommodate just over 4,000 passengers but was operating at about 75% capacity for the safety of all aboard.

The company’s other Long Beach-based ships—Miracle and Radiance, the latter of which recently underwent a $200 million makeover—began running their routes not long after. In May, when the Splendor begins service out of Seattle, all 23 Carnival Cruise Line ships will be back in service, Chiames said.

“We’re really excited about that,” Chiames said. “We’ve always had tremendous loyalty from our guests and they … clearly expressed a desire to get back to cruising.”

That desire resulted in guests willingly complying with increased safety protocols, Chiames said, which included being vaccinated, showing proof of a negative test and masking. While the mask mandate has been removed for most parts of the ship, Carnival still recommends guests wear them indoors, Chiames said. They are still required in some venues, he added.

The vaccination requirement, on the other hand, remains wholly intact: 95% of passengers on each vessel must be vaccinated against the coronavirus, including booster shots, Chiames said. Additionally, everyone, regardless of vaccination status, must show proof of a negative test before embarking.

“Quite frankly, while I think there was concern across the industry for [mandates], it really hasn’t been as much of an issue as one might have thought,” Chiames said. “People were just so anxious and happy to get back to cruising that they complied.”

Carnival is leading the cruise industry as it recovers from the devastating impacts of the pandemic, which halted operations for almost a year and a half, Chiames said. Combined, the Carnival Corporation—parent company of Carnival Cruise Lines and Princess Cruise, among others—reported nearly $19.8 billion in net losses in 2020 and 2021, according to financial records, compared to over $6.15 billion of total net income in 2018 and 2019.

In 2019, 700,000 passengers embarked on a Carnival vessel out of Long Beach, according to an economic impact study by the Port of Long Beach. That level of passenger traffic makes the Long Beach the busiest cruise terminal in the state and fifth in the nation behind PortMiami, Port Canaveral, Port Everglades and the Port of Galveston, Carnival spokeswoman Anne Madison said.

Prior to the pandemic, Long Beach cruise passengers generated more than $125 million annually in direct spending on goods, services, meals and hotels in the city, in addition to what Carnival purchases in goods and services for the ships embarking from the port, Madison said. The Long Beach operation generates $25 million in federal taxes and $19 million in state and local taxes.

“Carnival Cruise Lines provides a tremendous economic impact for the City of Long Beach in terms of the direct and indirect visitor spending,” Economic Development Director John Keisler said in an email, adding that “over $3 million in passenger, parking and other fees help pay for important city services that benefit our residents.”

Statewide, the cruise industry served 1.25 million passengers out of four ports in 2019, Madison said. Those passengers generated $2.6 billion in direct spending, supporting more than 50,000 jobs and $3.32 billion in wages.

After decades of sailing out of San Pedro, Carnival moved into its current Long Beach home in 2003. Carnival has spent nearly two decades strengthening its Long Beach operation, Chiames said, including the expansion of the cruise terminal next door to the Queen Mary and the increased capacity of the three ships that now call the city home.

Aside from being easily accessible, Chiames said Long Beach’s tourism economy, including numerous Downtown hotels, countless restaurants and various entertainment options is ideal for Carnival.

“A lot of people like to get in the night before to get settled,” Chiames said. “They like to be able to start their vacation in a relaxed way and not race to the ship.”

Chiames said the response of the Long Beach business community to the return of cruises has been appreciated after two years of turbulence.

“Even if employees at local hotels and restaurants never cruise, they love the symbolism of the cruise ships being back in the port and seeing the carnival funnel,” Chiames said, “because it means more business.”

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Business Journal.