First cruise liner docks at JAXPORT after two years of anticipation

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Pivoting has been a reality for cruise lines and local ports, as they’ve navigated how to safely set sail.

For the Jacksonville Port Authority, the major wait finally came to an end Monday.

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After two years, JAXPORT welcomed the first home-ported cruise ship back home: American Queen Voyages’ Ocean Voyager. The ship can hold up to 202 guests onboard.

This was the ship’s first southeast U.S.A sailing -- leaving from JAXPORT on Feb. 11 and completing its round trip 10 days later.

Action News Jax had the opportunity to tour the Ocean Voyager as it reset for its next voyage and taste the cuisine onboard.

“The pent up demand for cruising is most definitely there because of COVID,” said Fred Wong, JAXPORT’s Chief Operating Officer. “We have to take some precautions, but I think everybody is ready to get back on the water and cruise as well.”

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Guests on the Ocean Voyager began their trip with a pre-cruise hotel stay in Jacksonville -- followed by visits to Amelia Island (Fernandina Beach), FL; Brunswick, GA; Savannah, GA; Charleston, SC; Beaufort (Port Royal), SC; Port Canaveral, FL; and Freeport, Bahamas.

Leaders say this big return for JAXPORT has opened the door for major growth throughout northeast Florida.

“The ground transportation has blessed us with the shuttles, the limos and everybody working in the terminals -- as far as the security, staff and the embarkation,” Wong said. “It is so dependent on the local economy working for that cruise for that one call.”

The Ocean Voyager was built in Jacksonville through Atlantic Marine.

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“We’re terribly excited to be back up and operating,” said John Waggoner, the founder of American Queen Voyages. “Our guests love it. We’re glad to be here at JAXPORT.”

He shared that safety remains the number one priority.

“American Queen Voyages was one of the first companies ever to come out and say all of our crew members and guests had to be vaccinated,” Waggoner said. “Not only vaccinated -- but we test everyone.”

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has relaxed the masking rules for cruise lines, crews with American Queen Voyages say they’ve opted out of the CDC’s new program for their southeast sails. However, they plan to opt in when traveling to the Great Lakes and Alaska.

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Those who opt in to the CDC’s new program will be listed within a color status system for COVID-19 cases on cruise ships. Cruise lines in the program must also report the vaccination status of passengers and staff, as well as have a COVID-19 response plan.

“We have calls with the CDC every week,” Waggoner said. “Regulations are changing. Large vessels operate by completely different standards than we do.”

Waggoner said masks are required when boarding the ship and when riding in the motorcoaches – but not onboard.

Passengers must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and a negative COVID-19 test is required.

Wong explained the direction he feels the city is taking as a world class destination.

“Jacksonville is a great port to either home port, which the Ocean Voyager is home porting, or a port of call,” Wong said. “We have great beaches, golfing and environmental communities here. It’s just wonderful. They embrace cruising altogether.”

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