Alaska’s billion-dollar cruise season in the balance as CDC resists industry pressure to lift restrictions

Passengers from the mega ship Norwegian Joy disembark in May 2019 at Ketchikan’s Berth 3 downtown. (Photo by Leila Kheiry/KRBD)
Passengers from the mega ship Norwegian Joy disembark in May 2019 at Ketchikan’s Berth 3 downtown. (Photo by Leila Kheiry/KRBD)

The federal government held its ground on Wednesday against calls to roll back restrictions on cruise ship sailings. In Alaska, the rapidly approaching cruise season, and its billion dollar industry, is still at stake.

There are two major roadblocks when it comes to large cruise ships returning to Alaska waters. One of them is Canada’s closure to large foreign ships.

The other is the federal Conditional Sailing Order, a set of rules laid down by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention aimed at curbing major COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise ships. It replaced the stricter No Sail Order from March 2020, but has proved stringent enough to delay cruises so far.

On Wednesday a major cruise industry group called on the CDC to lift those rules. Cruise Lines International Association wants U.S.-cruising to resume by early July, citing accelerated vaccine rollouts in the U.S. and examples from Europe and Asia of outbreak-free limited cruising as reasons to open up the industry.

Last week Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski pushed the CDC to give a timeline for when Alaska businesses can expect cruising to resume. In a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on the federal government’s COVID-19 response, she said the state is moving fast on vaccinations and ready for tourists, but the guidance coming from CDC does not reflect that preparedness.

“We’ve been struggling and trying to get the economy back on track when 60% of [our] tourists that come to the state of Alaska come by cruise ship,” she said. “We’ve got a conditional sail order in place. It’s effectively a no sail order.”

But in an email to Trade Winds News, a shipping trade publication, the CDC said its guidelines will remain in effect until November — that is, after the 2021 season.

Before the pandemic, Alaska had some of the busiest cruise ports in the nation. Cruising contributed more than $1.2 billion in direct spending and more than 20,000 jobs, according to a Federal Maritime Commission report.

But, loosened CDC restrictions alone won’t bring large cruise ships back to Alaska ports. There’s still the issue of Canada’s cruise ship ban.

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