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When Will Alaska Cruises Resume?

Disney Wonder in Alaska

In mid-March, Canada closed its borders to foreign travelers and large vessels, including cruise ships, which effectively forced the cancellation of the Alaska cruise season in 2020.

When will Alaska cruises return? As is the case in any rapidly changing situation, the answer isn't clear. It depends on several factors, including decisions by North American government entities, cruise line health and safety protocols and, of course, the gool ol' Passenger Vessel Services Act.

But cruise officials remained optimistic during an Alaska panel discussion, part of Seatrade's 2020 virtual cruise industry conference lineup.

"The port of Vancouver is committed to this sector," said Peter Xotta, vice president of planning and operations for the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority. "Big-ship cruising is a key part of ... the economy of the entire region, both in Alaska and in the Pacific Northwest. We're optimistic that we'll return and hopefully go beyond the previous scale."

"We really anticipate that this winter and ... the beginning of next year, we will be getting back into operation," said Josh Carroll, vice president of port development for Royal Caribbean International, referring to the industry's overall restart. (Alaska sailings normally don't take place during the winter, due to logistical challenges presented by unfavorable weather conditions.)

Carnival Spirit in Alaska

Setbacks: Why was the 2020 Alaska cruise season affected?

Transport Canada and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both have no-sail orders in place for cruise ships. Transport Canada is considering the extension of its order into February 2021, while the U.S.'s is set to expire on October 31, 2020, following a third extension.

Under the U.S. Passenger Vessel Services Act, the only ships allowed to sail exclusively within the U.S. are those registered in the U.S.; foreign-flagged vessels leaving from the U.S. are only permitted to return after they have called on at least one foreign port, which is why most mainstream ships sailing Alaska itineraries either depart from Canada or include a stop in Canada along the way.

With the PVSA in place, the Alaska season would have been affected even if the U.S. didn't have a no-sail order in place because foreign-flagged ships would not have been able to call on Canadian ports in order to satisfy PVSA requirements.

This caused all of the industry's major players -- including Holland America Line and Princess Cruises, the lines with the largest presence in the region -- to cancel Alaska sailings for the 2020 season; Cunard has already canceled its planned 2021 season.

UnCruise, a small family-owned cruise line, attempted to restart sailings in the region -- something it was able to do despite the no-sail order, which applies only to vessels of 250 passengers or more, because its ships are small and registered in the U.S. The first voyage was sidelined in early August, thanks to a false positive test result returned by a single passenger. As a precaution, the line canceled all of its 2020 sailings around the Last Frontier.

Skagway

Ripple effect: What have cancellations meant for Alaska's economy?

The Cruise Lines International Association predicted that 1.4 million people would cruise to Alaska in 2020, spending an estimated $793 million in port. In a state where one in 10 jobs is related to tourism, local small businesses and their owners have been hit especially hard.

"They're going to go 17 months, in a best-case scenario, without any revenue," said Andrew Cremata, borough mayor of Skagway. He appealed to cruise lines "to reassure these small business owners, who are reeling and dealing with a great deal of stress, that you're going to do everything possible to make sure that, when you do arrive, not only is their health protected but also the financial wellbeing of their future."

During the panel, Carroll said one of Royal Caribbean's goals is to make sure that its relationships with the communities it visits are mutually beneficial and that passengers are buying local.

"Over time -- and, candidly, the industry itself has played a part in some of this -- there have been some outside entities, non-Alaskan, that have been able to come into some of these communities, set up shop and take some business there that normally would go to local communities," Carroll said. "We're reevaluating how we do business. We're looking at the way we advertise on our ships [and] how we funnel guests off of our ships."

Cremata explained that, although they want cruise ships and their passengers to return, communities are concerned about the associated risks.

Glacier Bay in Alaska

Looking ahead: What will it take for lines to return to service in Alaska?

Health and Safety Protocols

Confidence is key to cruising's successful return to Alaska, and confidence starts with the steps cruise lines are taking to ensure the health and safety of everyone involved. Those protocols could help to convince the CDC and Transport Canada to lift their no-sail orders. They would also serve to quell the fears of both travelers booking sailings and locals who live in the areas cruise ships visit.

Many cruise lines are looking at implementing recommendations from a list of 74 items the industry's collaborative Health Sail Panel recently submitted to the CDC for review. They include things like capacity reduction, mandatory pre-cruise testing and screening, daily temperature checks, onboard social distancing and mask wearing, limiting passengers to ship-sponsored excursions in port, increasing onboard medical staff and equipment, and creating contingency plans.

"In our communities, there are a number of people who are still concerned, rightfully so, about the health impacts of COVID and what it means to the communities when ships come in and they drop passengers off," Cremata said, noting that, through early action, Alaska has been able to keep its number of cases low. "Juneau and Ketchikan have hospitals. Skagway does not, which is why it's essential that we work with cruise ship companies to develop a facility here that can manage all of the different scenarios that could potentially take place."

But, Bill Fletcher, the senior director of destination marketing and engagement for Holland America Line, said cruise lines need to find a reasonable balance between keeping everyone safe and preserving the passenger experience. "If we try to control and contain our guests to the point where they're not able to engage with the places we're delivering them, we will not be successful."

Carroll stressed that it's important to distinguish between returning to service and returning to business. "Return to business is really what we're all looking for and need to work our way toward," he said. "Included in that needs to be this balance of protocols that keep guests, crew and communities safe, but at the same time ... allow for the economic wellbeing and the regeneration of these communities.

Carnival ship in Alaska passage

Expiration of No-Sail Orders or Relaxation of the PVSA

In order for Alaska cruises to fully resume, both the CDC and Transport Canada have to scrap their no-sail orders. If Transport Canada keeps its no-sail order in place into next year, some cruise industry experts and officials have called for the United States government to waive the PVSA, at least temporarily, in order to allow the 2021 Alaska season to proceed. So far, there has been no official word on whether that is being considered, but technical calls have been mentioned as one way around the regulations.

Cremata said the reopening of Canada's land borders would also help Alaska's tourism sector, particularly if the no-sail orders remain in place. "We are concerned about when that border will open because, even if we saw a reduction in cruise ship capacity moving into 2021, independent travel would keep us alive," he said. "But if both of those things are impacted, it's going to be difficult to recover from."

"...[Alaska cruising] is going to return," Cremata said. "We just don't know what, exactly, it's going to look like."