Holland America returning to San Diego after 18-month absence but you’ll need a COVID shot to cruise

Koningsdam docked at the B Street Pier on Monday, June 21, 2021 in San Diego, CA. (
The Holland America cruise ship Koningsdam docked at the B Street Pier on Monday, June 21, 2021 in San Diego, CA.
(Brittany Cruz-Fejeran / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Fully vaccinated passengers will be able to book voyages to the Mexican Riviera, Hawaii and California Coast on ships that will have enhanced safety systems and measures to guard against transmission of COVID-19


Come September, Holland America ships will once again become a familiar presence in San Diego Bay as the cruise line restarts sailings to Mexico, Hawaii and the California coast following an 18-month absence caused by the pandemic.

The cruise line announced Monday that it is scheduling 43 calls — all with fully vaccinated passengers — in San Diego over the seven-month period between September of this year and April 2022. That’s a 20 percent increase over the city’s last full sailing season in 2018-19.

While the ships will initially sail with lower capacities — about 50 percent — Holland America is still expecting a 30 percent increase in passengers by the end of the cruise season. That’s in part because it is adding a much larger ship — the 2,650-passenger Koningsdam — to its San Diego fleet.

A Koningsdam crewmember gets the Pfizer vaccine.
A Koningsdam crewmember gets the Pfizer vaccine provided by Sharp HealthCare at the B Street Pier on Monday, June 21, 2021 in San Diego, CA.
(Brittany Cruz-Fejeran/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The return of Holland America, along with other cruise lines this fall, marks a major turning point for San Diego’s formerly robust cruise industry, which was decimated by the abrupt shutdown in March 2020 as the coronavirus was rapidly spreading across the globe.

While leisure travel already has resumed, cruise lines are only just now announcing the resumption of sailings from U.S. ports after having to pass muster with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Holland America, like other lines, is continuing to vaccinate all its crew members against COVID-19 and is requiring that passengers be fully vaccinated as well.

San Diego will be the second U.S. port for Holland America’s restart, after it launches Alaska cruises from Seattle, starting July 24. Normally, the line starts its San Diego cruises later in October but is launching a month earlier this year, partly because its ships are already nearby, said Holland America President Gus Antorcha. They’ve been docked off the coast of Baja California and periodically make their way to San Diego and Los Angeles for supplies and vaccinating crew members.

Holland America Line President Gus Antorcha speaks at a press conference.
Holland America Line President Gus Antorcha speaks at a press conference announcing the fall-spring cruise seasoning out of San Diego at the B Street Pier on Monday, June 21, 2021 in San Diego, CA.
(Brittany Cruz-Fejeran / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“San Diego is a very important port for us and has been for a very long time,” Antorcha said in an interview. “We’ve actually increased capacity and we have an extremely good working relationship with the Port of San Diego. And the other thing is we’re able to pull from Southern California and neighboring states, which is why we’ve taken up our capacity (for the upcoming season).”

That increase, though, won’t continue into the 2022-23 season when Holland American plans to return to its normal schedule and volume of cruise calls, Antorcha said. Given the time the line has invested in preparing for the re-launch of cruising, including upgraded protocols, vaccinations, training of crew, Antorcha said he’s confident that there will be smooth sailing ahead for the upcoming cruises.

The upcoming schedule is dominated by cruises to Mexico and the California coast, including stops in Santa Barbara, Catalina and San Francisco. There are also a few Hawaii and Panama Canal sailings.

Even though the first cruises out of San Diego will have lower capacities, Antorcha said he expects to ramp up ship occupancies fairly quickly into the season.

“That’s really us wanting to make sure we can deliver the experience we want to deliver so we want to have time to do that before we get to higher occupancy levels,” Antorcha said. “But the CDC did not put a limit on occupancy.”

The CDC also is not requiring that fully vaccinated passengers wear facial coverings, Antorcha noted. In its current conditional sailing order, the CDC states that cruise lines can avoid test sailings before resuming paid voyages as long as 95 percent of their passengers are fully vaccinated. Antorcha said Holland America is shooting for a higher threshold.

“If you’re above the 95 percent threshold for fully vaccinated passengers, guests don’t have to wear masks and don’t have to distance,” he said. “Initially, we’ll have certain procedures on the crew side where they’ll have masks because we want to be more conservative.

“It’ll take a little bit for everyone to get back to normal. I’m vaccinated and I still wear masks sometimes, it just becomes second nature but by day two on a cruise, people are going to relax and remember what a great time they have on board. I fully expect some people to be wearing masks and that’s fine.”

Holland America is implementing a number of additional health and safety precautions, including enhanced environmental sanitation and air filtration with upgraded HVAC systems and ultraviolet technology. HEPA filters will be used in key areas, and medical centers will be equipped with COVID-19 testing and treatment capabilities.

Holland America’s schedule announcement came on the same day that the Koningsdam returned to the B Street Pier so that the crew members on board could get their second COVID-19 vaccinations. The ship had docked here a month earlier for the first round of Pfizer vaccinations.

While Holland America will be offering more sailings this cruise season, the Port of San Diego is still anticipating fewer overall cruise calls and passengers compared to the 2018-19 time period. It is estimating 50 to 87 cruise calls for 2021-22, accounting for as many as 260,000 passengers. In addition to Holland America, Celebrity, Princess and Disney will have ships sailing out of San Diego.

In 2018-19, there were 95 calls with 320,000 passengers, the port said.

Still, port officials are cheered by the approaching resumption of cruising, which is a major contributor to the local economy. With the cancellation of 167 cruises since March 2020, San Diego took an estimated $282 million economic hit, say port officials.

“Demand for cruising is as high as ever, if not higher, and San Diego is a highly rated home port and cruise destination thanks to all the attractions and amenities on and near San Diego Bay,” said Michael Zucchet, who chairs the Port of San Diego board. “We are thrilled Holland America, one of our longest-running cruise customers, is aiming to meet the demand by accounting for about half of all the cruises we’re expecting for the upcoming season.”