Upper Lynn Canal communities welcomed the first cruise ship since 2019. The 80 passengers aboard the relatively small American Constellation spent Friday in Skagway, then Saturday touring Haines.
The American Constellation cruise ship arrived in Haines this past weekend, the first since a global pandemic upended cruise tourism and just about everything else.
“Well 622 days to be exact, since the last cruise ship here. Since September 29th, 2019,” said Steven Auch, Haines’ tourism director. He was part of the early welcome reception at the docks along with the Chilkat Dancers, the borough mayor and several tourism operators. “It’s just shaking the rust off like always, of course. But this time we’re looking at much longer delay so that certainly makes it interesting. But uh, it’s been exciting just like always.”
One of the first stops for tourists in downtown Haines, after coffee, is the Sheldon Museum, where exhibits showcase art and culture of the Chilkat Valley from the 19th century to today.
“We’re delighted,” said Niall Hackett, a museum assistant. “It brings people back to Haines and opens up our economy and it’s exciting.”
The ship has a maximum capacity of 175 people, but this vessel brought just 80 passengers, in keeping with COVID-19 related precautions. Though small in number, enthusiasm was large.
“I’m having a great time with some new friends, Dick and Helen,” said Sharon Guest, a passenger from Missouri. “My husband is kayaking this morning and I certainly hope he is able to come back. This is just great, to make the stops in the small towns around and see how other people in the states live. And we’re grateful to be here, that you’re open, and just to have a good time.”
Her new friends from the ship are Dick and Helen Gherlone from Port Orange, Florida. They were walking around downtown Haines doing some souvenir shopping before rafting on the Chilkat River in the afternoon. Helen Gherlone said they had rebooked from 2020 and felt safe traveling this year.
“I felt that this summer is the safest it would ever be. Everybody’s wearing masks, they’re wiping things down, and you’ve had to have had both your vaccinations before you got on. So I’m feeling very safe.”
Haines has a vaccination rate of about 65%, as of June 7, according to regional medical officials.
Auch says the cruise line had required all passengers to be vaccinated, so borough officials were not taking temperatures or otherwise screening visitors at the dock.
“No one in Haines is asking for their verification,” said Auch. “Because we’re under the understanding that was all done on their end, through American Cruise Lines.”
But Jo Anna Egolf, co-owner of Alaska Nature Tours says they are asking — just in case.
“It’s kind of easy to put it out of your mind and get on your normal routine, but we really have to keep ourselves vigilant.”
She said health protocols and communications with the cruise line had changed so much over the last several months, they wanted to double check if people were vaccinated, offer masks and sanitation stations for their tours up the Chilkat River.
“We really feel responsible,” said Egolf. “We’re responsible for our staff at our office, our guides, and..so we take it pretty seriously.”
Egolf says she welcomes the small summer cruise season, but says they’re looking forward to many more visitors and cruise ships next summer, in 2022, as well as 2023.
“It takes a lot of work to prepare for a season. You have CDL drivers and you have insurance, and you have lots of expenses, and it’s nice to finally get it going,” she said.
This weekend’s ship is one of 12 American Constellation cruises to dock in Haines this summer. The big ships from mega-lines like Norwegian and Royal Carribean are expected to visit Skagway later this summer.