Business/Economy

Small cruise operators are still planning to sail Alaska waters in 2021

The fate of the 2021 Alaska tourism season is still very much an unknown for the large international cruise lines that operate vessels with thousands of passengers, but small-vessel operators are preparing to get back to touring the Inside Passage.

Alaska Dream Cruises is one of those companies in the unique position of falling outside of strict guidelines imposed on the large cruise companies.

Marketing director Zak Kirkpatrick said in an interview that the Sitka-based tour provider has seen an “uptick” in bookings of late for cruises this spring and summer and broader reservation inquiries are getting back to pre-pandemic levels for the company.

Canada’s Transport Ministry on Feb. 4 moved to again block cruise ships from calling on its ports in 2021, effectively eliminating the only practical way for ships sailing to Alaska from West Coast ports to comply with the Passenger Vessel Services Act. The 19th century law requires foreign-built vessels, which all of the world’s large cruise ships are, traveling between U.S. ports to stop in a foreign port along the way.

However, Alaska Dream Cruises’ vessels are American built, Kirkpatrick noted, and they stay in Southeast Alaska. The company’s six vessels carry between 10 and 76 passengers, which additionally provides leeway outside of the Centers for Disease Control guidelines and mandates for cruise ships, which apply to vessels capable of carrying 250 passengers or more.

Kirkpatrick said those booking with Alaska Dream Cruises this year are largely in the 60-year-plus demographic that traditionally makes up most of the company’s cruise customers.

“That’s correlating with a lot of folks who are in line for the first wave of vaccines or they feel they will be in the summer,” he said. “There appears to be pent up demand. People are feeling excited to travel and we’re going through all the necessary safety and health protocols to welcome them back this year.”

The company could add sailings in late September outside of its normal schedule if the demand is there, Kirkpatrick said as well.

Alaska Marine Highway System spokesman Sam Dapcevich said it’s too early to tell if the state ferry system — long used by some travelers as an alternative to the large ships with its Bellingham, Washington, service — will see a boost in ridership from cruise ship situation because the summer ferry schedule was just opened for booking Feb. 24 but system officials are expecting more traffic.

He also noted that one additional cross-Gulf of Alaska sailing per month has been added to the summer ferry schedule to help accommodate drivers affected by Canada’s border closure.

Alaska Dream Cruises is one of three smaller cruise lines scheduled to ply Southeast waters this summer; UnCruise Adventures out of Seattle and Connecticut-based American Cruise Lines are the others, according to Steve Danishek, president of TMA Travel in Seattle.

Many of the companies’ vessels are small, custom-made cruise ships, but much of the collective fleet are reconfigured fishing and work vessels as well. These smaller ships — some American Cruise ships carry up to 175 passengers — are also used to visit the Southeast communities the massive ships can’t reach.

In Wrangell, one such community, tour operators still feel the effects of no large cruise ships via excursion contracts they have with the cruise lines even if they aren’t located directly at a port of call for the large ships, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Stephanie Cook said in an interview.

“It’s big income for the charter operators as well as the businesses in the community,” Cook said of the large cruise lines. “(Canada’s announcement) was definitely a bit of a hit for us but we are looking forward to the ships that we are going to be able to get: the smaller ones. We’re just trying to push through and be thankful for what we’ve got coming, hopefully.”

The Wrangell Chamber’s visitors board is working on new branding aimed at independent airline travelers that they are hoping to have ready in time for summer, according to Cook, who said the business group is among those across Southeast that are “just trying to be creative and come up with alternative solutions” to the large cruise ships.

[What Canada’s cruise ban and Alaska’s now-optional traveler screenings could mean for summer travel]

Kirkpatrick said Alaska Dream Cruises parent company Allen Marine is in much the same situation. Allen Marine primarily operates day excursions such as whale watching and guided beach tours for the large cruise companies. Company leaders are now working on plans for independent visitor trips with its fleet of day catamarans, he said, while also stressing that a quick return of the big ships and their million-plus passengers is still critical.

According to Kirkpatrick, Allen Marine and Alaska Dream Cruises previously employed about 180 full-time, year-round workers, a number that fell to less than 50 shortly after the onset of the pandemic when it became clear there would be no sailings last year.

“It’s just impossible to overstate how important it is to our economy,” he said.

To that end, Rep. Don Young introduced the Alaska Tourism Recovery Act in the House Feb. 24. The bill would provide a temporary “workaround” to the Passenger Vessel Service Act requirements by considering voyages between Washington and Alaska “foreign voyages,” according to a statement from Young’s office.

[Alaska contends with cruise ban as state leaders criticize Canadian decision]

“We’ve made significant progress in the fight against COVID-19,” Young said in a prepared statement. “Vaccinations continue to ramp up, and daily cases are on the decline. By the time the 2021 cruise season typically starts (in early May), I am confident that we will be in a strong position to allow cruises to resume with proper safeguards in place.”

Staffers in Sen. Dan Sullivan’s office said he and Sen. Lisa Murkowski are working on similar legislation to file in the Senate, which lately has been consumed by confirmation hearings.

Cruise line representatives have additionally floated the possibility that Canadian officials could be more receptive to limited and strategic port calls if COVID-19 national case counts generally remain on a downward trajectory and many cruise passengers have been vaccinated.

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