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Royal Caribbean sails first ‘simulator’ cruise ship from Miami, as industry set to restart

A Royal Caribbean International cruise ship left from PortMiami with 600 passengers on board Sunday evening — part of a test sail trip as the cruise industry gears up for a grand restart later this summer.

The two-day trip on the Freedom of the Seas is a simulation with volunteer passengers, many of whom are Royal Caribbean employees, set to test whether cruise ships are safe. It’s a major milestone for the cruising industry after it came to a sudden halt last year during the COVID-19 pandemic and has not sailed with passengers for 15 months.

The ship, which left the South Florida port at 7 p.m. Sunday, will stop in CocoCay, the Bahamian island owned by the major cruise line.

“It’s been a long 15 months, and we’re really excited to get back to cruising again and get started. This is a great way for us to do that with a simulated sailing, to work with our employees and volunteers and guests to really try out all of our protocols to make sure that they’re working and ensure kind of a seamless transition to revenue voyages,” said Laura Hodges Bethge, senior vice president of Shared Services Operation at Royal Caribbean Group.

The test ship is departing in the throes of a rocky restart for the industry, just two days after a federal judge in Tampa issued a 124-page ruling — throwing out regulations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that dictated what safety rules cruise lines must comply with to set sail. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis challenged the rules in court, arguing the regulations were unfairly targeting the cruise ship industry and cruise companies should be allowed to operate without any federal oversight.