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Carnival delays Sunshine cruise ship's return to Charleston — again

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Passengers leave the Sunshine cruise ship on March 12 at the Port of Charleston after its most recent voyage. Carnival Cruise Line has canceled most cruises, including those from Charleston, until at least Sept. 1. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

Carnival Cruise Line said Monday it will delay most of its North American cruises, including the Sunshine's departures from Union Pier in downtown Charleston, until at least Sept. 1 as COVID-19 fears continue to hammer the travel industry.

Only a handful of cruises will operate from ports in Florida and Texas starting Aug. 1, with all other cruises canceled through the end of that month. It's not clear exactly when the Sunshine will return to Charleston. The State Ports Authority has removed its calendar of cruise operations from it website, and Carnival's booking website does not show any available cruises from the Holy City through this year.

"We are taking a measured approach, focusing our return to service on a select number of home ports where we have more significant operations that are easily accessible by car for the majority of our guests," Carnival said in a statement.

"We will use this additional time to continue to engage experts, government officials and stakeholders on additional protocols and procedures to protect the health and safety of our guests, crew and the communities we serve," the cruise line stated. "We appreciate the understanding and support of our guests and travel agent partners and look forward to welcoming them on board as the environment for travel and tourism improves."

The 3,002-passenger Sunshine last carried guests on March 12, when it returned to Union Pier after a voyage to the Bahamas. The pleasure ship and its crew of about 1,100 had been docked at Columbus Street Terminal in Charleston until April 23, when it sailed to the Bahamas so crew members could find transportation to their homes.

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Carnival said guests who have booked travel on canceled cruises will be notified by email of their options for a refund or credit for a future cruise with onboard perks.

The company has had a bumpy financial ride since its North American cruises were halted in March. It reported a $781 million loss in the first quarter, compared to profit of $336 million a year earlier. Carnival then sold an 8.2 percent share to Saudi Arabia's public investment fund at bargain prices to raise cash. The Federal Reserve's move in March to add liquidity to credit markets made it easier for Carnival to raise another $6 billion from investors at a lower interest rate than hedge funds the cruise line had been negotiating with were offering.

Sunshine leaves Charleston as Carnival repositions ships during cruise hiatus

The ports authority is also taking a hit from the cruise shutdown. The industry accounts for about 5 percent of the maritime agency’s annual operating revenues, or roughly $8 million. Charleston hosted 262,776 passengers from the Sunshine and other pleasure ships making ports of call in 2019.

It’s not clear how the public will respond to cruising once the COVID-19 crisis is over. Carnival said in a regulatory filing that nearly half of customers whose cruises were canceled have accepted vouchers for future trips instead having their deposits returned. But the cruise line acknowledges its future is uncertain and it is offering steep discounts — as low as $50 per person, per day — to lure future passengers.

The industry voluntarily suspended operations from U.S. ports in March and the Centers for Disease Control later announced a no-sail order to all cruise ships. That order, which could be extended, is in effect until July 24 or until the Secretary of Health and Human Services declares COVID-19 is no longer a health emergency.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_

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