Cruise ban ends, but the coast isn’t clear for the 2021 season in Alaska

Skagway, as it appeared from the air, in 2015.
Skagway, as it appeared from the air, in 2015. (Photo by S. Millard/National Park Service)

The federal government’s 7-month ban on cruising has officially come to an end, but that doesn’t mean the cruise industry has a clear path into Alaska next spring.

The No Sail order from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be replaced with what’s called a Conditional Sailing Order instead. It’s basically an acknowledgement that the health system isn’t ready for unrestricted cruising and it comes with a requirement for cruise ships to apply and register with the CDC to sail.

That’s significant for communities like Skagway, whose economies are tied to the cruise ship industry.

“Our survival as a community could very well depend upon how all of this shakes out,” said Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata.

He says cruise ships are responsible for well over 90% of his town’s economy.

The Conditional Sailing Order also says the cruise industry needs a plan that satisfies local ports. That really matters in tiny, remote towns like Skagway, where the nearest hospital is 100 miles away by ferry or seaplane and the local clinic only has two ventilators.

Cremata says Skagway can handle it.

“We’re ready to have a cruise ship season. I have zero doubt about that,” he said. “We’re prepared to deal with COVID, we’re prepared to deal with the influx of people to deal with the intricacies of whatever we need to do to make sure we have an economy here. Unfortunately, all of these factors beyond our control prevents us from doing that. So keep our fingers crossed, I guess.”

But there’s a potential, serious obstacle. A maritime law says foreign flagged cruise ships need to stop in Canada between U.S ports. And Canada’s port is closed to cruise ships through next February. That’s a couple of months before Alaska’s cruise season starts, but cruise companies need to plan their itineraries now. There are no guarantees that the closure won’t be extended as COVID-19 case counts rise in the U.S.

That’s got Alaska’s two U.S. Senators exploring waivers and workarounds to the law that may help Skagway and other Southeast port towns that depend on the cruise industry.

Cremata says he’s grateful that the delegation is exploring ideas that could bring the town’s economy back to life. But he says those ideas are just the start of a solution–real economic recovery hinges on the ports and borders being open.

And they’re going to need an economic bailout if the cruise ship season fizzles for the second year in a row.

“We don’t like to have our hand out, we don’t like to say, we need help,” Cremata said. “But even in the best case scenario, we’re going to need help. In a worst case scenario, we’re gonna need a lot of help.”

And there’s one more wrinkle: earlier this week the CDC renewed the travel warning it originally issued in March. It’s the agency’s highest warning — level-3 — and basically tells travelers that even if they can sail on cruise ships, they shouldn’t.