Small cruise ships are coming to Southeast Alaska, but not all passengers will get to mingle and shop in towns

Tourists look in the window of Lynch and Kennedy Dry Goods in May 2016. (Photo by Emily Files/KHNS)
Tourists look in the window of Lynch and Kennedy Dry Goods in May 2016. (Photo by Emily Files/KHNS)

Canada’s ban on cruise ships through early 2022 effectively ended most of the cruise season in Alaska. A handful of smaller, boutique cruises plan to sail. But not all of them plan to allow passengers to stop in towns.

UnCruise is a small vessel cruise fleet. Boat capacity is fewer than 250 passengers, so it’s unaffected by Canada’s restrictions and it doesn’t have to comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s conditional sailing order. It’s mitigation plans are reviewed by Juneau’s emergency operations center and the state.

“We’re a US flag operator,” said CEO and captain Dan Blanchard. “All U.S. crew, U.S.-built boat, U.S.-certified and regulated, and we pay U.S. taxes.”

UnCruise isn’t the only US flagged cruising company to be unaffected by the Canadian ban: American Cruise Lines and Alaskan Dream Cruise both have Alaska itineraries this year.

Blanchard’s UnCruise even attempted to sail last year, but turned back after a passenger tested positive for COVID-19. Blanchard says part of the problem last year was that testing wasn’t widely available and there were no kits onboard. This year there will be.

But there’s another pandemic mitigation strategy in place, and one that isn’t great news for restaurants, shops, and tour companies: the ships won’t be making traditional port calls. Blanchard says passengers won’t mingle in Southeast Alaska communities.

“It’s off the books. And it’s mainly because we feel like we have to maintain that bubble, that we can’t take any risk. Now, that could change, I will tell you,” he said.

The company had 30 port calls in Haines in 2019. This year he says there won’t be any. Blanchard says things could change if the new Johnson and Johnson vaccine is released soon.

UnCruise is just one of several small boat tourist options that plan to sail in Southeast Alaska. Alaskan Dream Cruises is another. Nothing is set in stone, but marketing director Zakary Kirkpatrick says the company hopes to have traditional port calls.

“Our guests will be masked. There’s many onboard protocols. There’s guest health questionnaires, of course, the interstate travel mandates, but we want to be able to go in and have and you know, be able to positively impact the economies of the places we live like Skagway,” said Kirkpatrick.

The company is making 16 scheduled calls in Skagway this season, with a potential of up to 879 passengers. Kirkpatrick says there are no port calls scheduled in Haines this year.

Haines tourism director Steven Auch says it’s up to the business community to decide if staying open for small ships is worth it.

“If you’re a shop owner, and you know that there are 60 people in town, are you going to bother opening in the hopes that you’ll get a few of those people versus if there was a ship with, you know, 2,000 people in town? Then, you know, the likelihood of somebody coming to your store is much greater,” Auch said.

Auch says the best thing people can do to encourage the return of tourists is to get vaccinated.

Lindblad and American Cruise Lines also have regional sailing scheduled this year. American Cruise Lines plans to allow guests to visit restaurants and stores in port stops. The company will have one 175 passenger ship sailing Alaska. Haines and Skagway are on its itineraries.

It is unknown if Lindblad plans regular port calls. Representatives were unreachable by broadcast time.

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