New rules allow big cruise ships in Alaska. Here’s why the season will still be slow.

Tour operators hold signs while cruise passengers disembark from the Eurodam. Scenes like this crowded dock likely aren’t in store for 2021 as lines institute anti-pandemic protocols. (Leila Kheiry/KRBD)

As soon as Congress passed a bill Thursday to temporarily exempt Alaska-bound cruise ships from the Passenger Vessel Services Act, Holland America announced it would sail north on July 24. Norwegian Cruise Line is taking reservations for early August.

By waiving the requirement that foreign cruise liners stop in Canada between U.S. ports, Congress removed one barrier for the industry that much of Southeast Alaska depends on. But questions remain about how big this summer’s cruise season will be.

It takes time to prepare a ship and crew. And cruise line executives have complained the rules the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has imposed on the industry aren’t workable. For instance, said Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Frank Del Rio, consider the mask mandate for extended indoor dining:

“In between bites or sips you’ve got to put it back on and take it off and put it back on … it’s absurd,” he told CNBC in early May. “I mean, we wouldn’t put our customers through that.”

The CDC hasn’t issued looser standards since then. But others in the industry sound sure revisions are underway

“We think we’re very close,” said Holland America President Gustavo Antorcha on Thursday.

Holland America and its sister lines, Carnival and Princess, intend to dedicate one ship each to Alaska this summer, he said. It’s a fraction of their usual fleet, but it amounts to a total of about 30 week-long cruises.

As the national COVID-19 situation improves, he said, the CDC seems willing to make changes to the rules.

“There’s still some details to figure out specifically around physical distancing and mask-wearing,” Antorcha said.

“Cruise Guy” Stewart Chiron, who sells cruises on his website, said the CDC rules have discouraged many ships right out of the country.

“The cruise lines got so frustrated that several of them, instead of sailing from U.S. ports this summer, are now scheduled to be sailing from foreign ports,” he said.

He checked on some of the ships that would normally be in Alaska now:

“Celebrity Millennium on June 5 is going to be sailing from St. Maarten,” he said. “Royal Caribbean’s Adventure the Seas is going to be sailing out of Nassau …And then you’ve got Seaborn, which is never in the Caribbean in the summer, it’s sailing out of Barbados.”

In Ketchikan, businesses that cater to cruise passengers are still in limbo.

Southeast Exposure Outdoor Adventure Center is a family-owned operation in Ketchikan that offers guided kayaking trips and zip-line tours. Manager Jared Gross said he hasn’t made concrete plans yet because he doesn’t know how many ships might come, and he wondered about any impact from Ketchikan’s current COVID spike.

“But I think it’s pretty sure,” he said.

Gross hadn’t yet reached out to any potential guides yet. Last summer, with no cruise ships, they had mostly local customers, which the family handled without hiring its usual cadre of guides.

“We did a lot of birthday parties,” he said. “I think we took every 13 and 14-year-old in Ketchikan on our zip-line tour.”

He’s considering how to scale up for a season of unknown proportions.

“We’d need to staff maybe 8 people, when we’re normally like 24. A third of the business maybe would come our way in August and September,” Gross said.

Meanwhile, in the Senate chamber, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan celebrated the final passage of the bill that exempts Alaska-bound cruises from stopping in Canada this summer. He took the opportunity to pitch to potential tourists.

“Come on up to Alaska,” Sullivan said on the Senate floor. “We’re waiting there for you … Get on a cruise ship! Fly up!”

Thursday, with the bill headed for the president’s desk, the website of Norwegian Cruise Line showed multiple Alaska cruises from early August until mid-October. Holland America and Princess say they’ll open booking on Friday for the 2021 season.

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