Unalaska, a burgeoning cruise ship destination, expects no sailings until late June

The first cruise ship of the 2019 season is scheduled to arrive in Unalaska on May 6.
Six cruise ships have canceled their visits to Unalaska in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Those cancellations represent a loss of about 3,000 passengers and at least $50,000 dollars in combined revenue for various services. (Photo by Berett Wilber/KUCB)

With 20 cruise ship visits scheduled, Unalaska had been preparing for a record number of visitors this year. But the industry has been dealt a series of blows in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

There have been port closures in Canada and Seattle, a federal “no sail” order, and several outbreaks of the disease on cruise ships in the past two months.

So far, six of the sailings that would have come to Unalaska this year have been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But there are still 14 planned visits, at least for now.

Anntouza Sedjo, cruise ship coordinator for the Unalaska Visitors Bureau, said the loss of 30% of scheduled visits is a blow to the city. But, she said, at least the community is not in the same dire situation as other coastal communities that rely more heavily on the visitor sector.

“Unlike Southeast Alaska, our community is not dependent on (tourism) income. Having this many cruise ships is relatively new,” she said.

The state’s tourism economy accounts for as much as 1 in 10 jobs throughout the state and more in the regions surrounding Anchorage and Juneau. It represented more than $4 billion in total spending in 2017, and that number is only growing.

“But I don’t want to downplay it at all,” Sedjo said. “This is a huge blow with even six cancellations, because people plan and they budget.”

“But fortunately for our community, it’s not going to be a devastating blow like it is to somewhere like Skagway or Ketchikan or even Juneau, where they are highly dependent on cruise ship income,” she said.

Even so, those six cruise ship cancellations to Unalaska represent a loss of about 3,000 passengers and at least $50,000 in combined revenue for various services, according to Sedjo. It will impact local businesses and artists who rely on cruise ship visitors for support during the summer months.

But Unalaska doesn’t tend to get many large cruise ships. In general, the community sees ships with less than 200 passengers, which means they aren’t included in the “no sail order” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that limits sailings of ships with more than 250 passengers. However, there’s still a warning that even smaller ships pose a risk to both the passengers and to the ports they come into.

In the meantime, the visitors bureau is working with city officials on safety protocols for when and if cruise ship passengers do arrive. Sedjo said that could include mandating cruise ships screen passengers before they get off their boats and enter a community, among other requirements.

The island’s first cruise ship is still scheduled to visit in late June, but as uncertainties over the coronavirus continue, Sedjo said she expects to see more cancellations.

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