Travel industry figures are bullish on a near-normal 2022 Alaska cruise season

Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas docked at Ketchikan’s Berth 4 in 2021. It was the first large cruise ship to sail to Alaska since October 2019. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

Alaska’s visitor industry representatives are bullish on the 2022 cruise season. But there are still questions about how many visitors will really arrive on the ships this summer.

After two years of little to no cruise traffic, Travel Juneau President and CEO Liz Perry says she’s excited to get back to something resembling a normal summer.

“I think all of our operators are really optimistic that they’re going to see better returns the season for 2022 than they have seen in a long time,” Perry said in a phone interview Thursday.

There were essentially no cruise ship tourists in 2020, save for a single small ship. And though independent tourists buoyed the visitor industry in 2021, cruise ships delivered only about a tenth of their typical passenger load, with just one or two large vessels tied up each day.

But this summer, cruise ship schedules are packed — on some days, Ketchikan and Juneau are expecting as many as seven ships in port at a time.

“The big question for us is how full the ships are actually going to be when they arrive,” Perry said.

If all of the ships on the schedule this year were full, it would be a record year: an emailed statement from Cruise Lines International Association Alaska says the ships planning to visit this summer have a rough capacity of 1.5 million passengers — upwards of 2019 levels.

“I know that worldwide, cruising has been operating at about 60-70% capacity. What that means for the Alaska cruise season, we’re just not sure,” she said.

The city of Ketchikan’s port and harbors department is expecting ships to be about 70% full. That’d be just shy of a million passengers. Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata, for his part, says he expects ships to fill up as the season progresses.

“We’re cautiously optimistic. I think after the last couple of years, it’s a good approach. However, what I’m hearing from the cruise ship companies is that it may be a little bit of a slower start than everybody had hoped,” Cremata said by phone Thursday.

For a couple of reasons: First, Cremata says the omicron variant put a damper on cruise bookings, though lately he says they’ve bounced back. Second, he says there’s still some uncertainty about how Canada’s rules could affect Alaska’s cruise season.

Canada’s rules matter because this year, unlike last year, all cruise ships have to stop in Canada because of a 19th-century federal law. The Passenger Vessel Services Act was waived for Alaska cruises last year after a push by Alaska’s congressional delegation. But that waiver expires at the end of March.

“There’s always the threat that the PVSA moratorium expiring could have an effect on some of the ships, but mostly what we’re hearing from Canada is positive as well,” Cremata said.

A proposal to extend the waiver is pending on Capitol Hill but likely won’t pass in time for the beginning of the season.

The Canadian government announced updated COVID-19 rules for cruise ships this month. Passengers must be vaccinated, with limited exceptions for kids under 12 and a few other exemptions. Passengers have to be tested before boarding, and cruise lines must have plans in place for outbreaks aboard. Masks will often be optional.

Cruise Lines International Association Alaska, the largest regional cruise industry group, welcomed the news.

“We’re encouraged by the recent announcement as it provides a level of certainty for a full Alaska season,” Renée Limoge Reeve of Cruise Lines International Association Alaska wrote in an email to KRBD.

In a statement, Holland America compared the Canadian protocols to the U.S. government’s COVID-19 policies, which were made voluntary earlier this year.

Skagway’s Mayor Cremata spends his summers on the cruise docks selling tours. And he says he’s ready for the hustle and bustle again.

“I like the tourists. I like it when it’s busy,” he said. “And that might sound a bit crazy to people who avoid those types of scenarios, but it is part of what makes our community unique.”

The first Alaska port call of the season is set for April 25, when the nearly 4,000-passenger Norwegian Bliss is scheduled to tie up in Juneau as part of its cruise of Southeast Alaska.

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