Southeast Alaska small businesses, local officials worry they’ll be left out of cruise industry bubble

Out to Sea Expeditions co-owners Eric Lunde, left, and Delaney Murphy pose for a picture with the company dog, Paris. (Eric Stone/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

With federal restrictions set to expire at the end of this month, cruise lines hope to sail from U.S. ports again soon — possibly before the end of the year. But some small business owners and officials worry that when ships start bringing tourists back to Southeast Alaska, locals may get left out.

This summer was supposed to be when business partners Eric Lunde and Delaney Murphy started sharing the natural beauty of Southeast Alaska with their slice of a million-plus cruise ship visitors. They’d just founded Out to Sea Expedition Company on Ketchikan’s waterfront.

“Of course, we were really excited about — about 2020,” said Murphy, a co-owner and naturalist for Out to Sea.

But as the pandemic took hold, the season was canceled.

Now, there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon. A federal no-sail order looks set to expire at the end of this month, though several lines have pushed their return-to-service dates back further.

Some ships are back at sea in Europe. Cruise passengers and crew are tested for COVID-19 before getting aboard, ships run at reduced capacity and onboard medical facilities are prepped for positive patients.

And when passengers get off the ship in port, they’re restricted solely to cruise line-sponsored activities. Bud Darr is an executive with Geneva-based cruise line MSC.

“Bubble-type of shore excursions is one of the keys to making our protocols work,” Darr said.

Otherwise, the MSC vice president told the Alaska Chamber late last month, there would be a big hole in the cruise ship bubble.

“We have to have operators that are willing to provide an equivalent level of safety to what we’re providing on the ship, or else the whole thing really doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Cruise lines are taking similar steps as they get ready to resume cruising in the Americas. Royal Caribbean and Norwegian came out with a set of protocols that closely resemble MSC’s approach. The industry’s largest lobbying group, Cruise Lines International Association, released a similar set of recommendations.

But Out to Sea Expeditions co-owner Eric Lunde said he’s worried that keeping guests in a bubble would squeeze out most of Southeast Alaska’s small tour companies, retailers and restaurants.

“It would become basically another no-ship season, except for in this case, you’ll have a ship parked there, just to remind you. It’s almost a slap in the face,” Lunde told Alaska’s Energy Desk.

He said partnering with the cruise lines to sell his tours aboard really isn’t an option — he just can’t afford it.

“Basically that exchange, you sell at a very cheap price in exchange for volume. And a lot of the independent tour operators are like a single six-pack boat — very, very small operations,” he said.

With room for only six passengers, low-price, high-volume tours don’t make sense.

“For a small operator, it’s just not even feasible,” said Kevin Birchfield, a charter boat captain and president of the Juneau Charter Boat Owners Association, which represents 12 small tour companies.

“They’ve got to be able to operate in a fashion where everyone is included,” he said in a phone interview.

Local officials are sounding the alarm, too.

“There’s not going to be any free-flowing traffic within the downtown, and that’s going to have a very serious impact on the local economy,” Ketchikan City Manager Karl Amylon said Wednesday.

Amylon said the city is working on ideas — barricading the port, limiting traffic, maybe even getting the whole downtown area inside the bubble.

Mike Tibbles is head of government relations for Alaska’s CLIA chapter. He said the exclusive focus on cruise line-sponsored activities is a temporary fix — it’s an effort to prove to the CDC that cruising can be done safely. He said those recommendations are primarily targeted at the first few sailings from Lower 48 ports.

“This is not what we hope to have by the Alaska season — I mean, we hope that things open up,” Tibbles said in a phone interview Tuesday.

He said cruise lines envision expanding that bubble beyond line-sponsored trips.

“The goal is to work with shore excursions and local businesses that have an equal level of risk mitigation or safety protocols that the cruise ship has,” he said.

But the cruise industry rep says it’s too soon to discuss what tour operators — or even cities — can do to get inside the bubble. Tibbles prefers the term “safety net.”

“The very first hurdle that we’ve got to overcome is just to get some level of service restarted, right? And you know, between now and the Alaska season, there’s a lot of time to be able to have discussions with our business partners and with the local community leaders on how we can expand the safety net,” he said.

Tibbles said he’s speaking with mayors and managers in port communities. He said the overall pandemic situation — like how many cases there are, whether a vaccine or treatment is available, improvements in rapid testing — could influence how and when protocols are relaxed.

Delaney Murphy, though, the naturalist and co-owner of Out to Sea, said she’s hoping for answers sooner rather than later.

“I’m sure it will change — hopefully, it will change — from how they’re starting off,” she said. “But if it doesn’t, though, what are we going to find out in March? That, ‘Oh, actually, nope, you’re not, you’re not going to have a season unless you’re in this group.’ Like, we need to be able to plan, you know?”

She says that if they can’t get inside the bubble, Out to Sea may not survive.

Cruise ships usually start calling on Alaska ports in April. Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Holland America, Princess and Disney Cruise Line each list spring 2021 Alaska voyages on their websites.

This story was produced as part of a collaboration between KRBD and Alaska’s Energy Desk.