The U.S. government has explicitly warned Americans not to travel on cruise ships due to coronavirus, a little more than a month before the start of Alaska’s projected 1.4 million visitor summer cruise season.
“U.S. citizens, particularly travelers with underlying health conditions, should not travel by cruise ship,” the State Department said in an alert Sunday.
The advisory is raising questions and anxieties in Alaska’s cruise port towns with the arrival of the first ships expected at the end of April. Cruise visitors spend $2.8 billion in the state each season, according to the Cruise Industry Association of Alaska.
On Monday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy tried to offer reassurance, saying there was “time to work through the cruise ship issues” before the season begins.
But whether the coronavirus warning, plus nonstop scenes of quarantined ships seeking ports, will have many would-be cruise passengers rethinking their vacations remains to be seen.
Cruise lines have not announced any cancellations of sailings to Alaska, and have even added sailings as ships were pulled from their Asia seasons early, said Mike Tribbles of CLIA, the Alaska cruise industry organization.
The organization said in a statement that it was “surprised at the advisory” but would work with the government on an “aggressive, responsive plan” for summer cruising in Alaska.
“Our first priority is to protect our guests, our crew and the communities where we sail,” CLIA said in a statement. “This includes more stringent boarding procedures, adding additional onboard medical resources and temperature screenings at embarkation."
Still, lots of questions remain.
Perhaps no Alaska town has more to lose than Skagway, where 454 cruise port visits are planned for this summer. The Southeast Alaska town has a population of only 700-800 during the winter, but swells up to 30,000 people on days when multiple large cruise ships come to unleash passengers on its historic downtown.
Some 95% of the economy in Skagway is tied to cruise ship tourism, said Mayor Andrew Cremata, a freelance writer who has lived in the town for 26 years.
His first priority is making sure Skagway’s health is protected — but economic health is important too: Many people in town make their living during the short summer tourism season, and a significant reduction in the number of cruise visitors would be devastating.
“We have to look at worst case scenarios,” said Cremata. “Either a long delay in cruise ship (arrivals) or cancellations, for a week or a month or the whole season.”
Cremata said he’s been disappointed by the lack of communication from the cruise companies. Leaders in Skagway have been learning about cruise protocols through news stories, he said.
He’d like to know about embarkation protocols, what would happen if a person tested positive while on the cruise, and health screenings for crew transfers.
“We don’t want a situation where a cruise ship could potentially bring infected passengers into our community, where it cripples the community and causes the season to be shut down,” he said.
That said, he’s optimistic. The town has done a good job of making its own emergency preparedness plans for coronavirus.
“We need to prepare for the worst but ideally, this thing mitigates itself,” he said.
The mayor of Sitka, scheduled for about 200 cruise port calls this summer, is also weighing options.
“Certainly our town relies significantly on tourism,” said Gary Paxton. “But to say we’re gonna lose our cruise industry is an overstatement.”
Paxton hadn’t heard of the cancellations of any sailings as of Monday.
“I think the cruise lines know how to deal with these kinds of things,” he said.
The cruise industry itself is downplaying the threat. Executives were said to be surprised by Sunday’s alert, which came one day after a meeting between industry executives and Vice President Mike Pence.
In a statement, Carnival Cruise Line, which operates Princess Cruises and Holland America Line, two key players in the Alaska market, said that “while advisories are in place, we are open for business.”
“We continue to implement higher and more rigorous protocols to protect” traveler health and safety, the statement said.
Some operators, like Princess, have offered an up to $200 credit for cruisers who choose to keep their bookings.
Cruising remains “one of the most attractive vacation options available,” Carnival said.