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“There is sailing in Alaska this summer,” said Dan Blanchard, CEO of UnCruise Adventures.
Following the news that Canada is extending its prohibition of cruise ships into the country until February 2022, many immediately assumed it was a death blow to the entire 2021 Alaska cruise season.
After all, the Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 (PVSA) requires all foreign-flagged passenger ships carrying guests between U.S. destinations to include a stop at a foreign port. For those wondering if a technical call (paperwork conducted in the territory) without disembarking passengers in a Canadian port would suffice, a deeper dive into the country’s order reveals that it bans cruise ships from even entering its waters.
While the PVSA and Canada’s mandate do affect most cruise lines that operate in the region (mainly large-ship lines) it does not apply to small-ship companies that have domestic-registered vessels.
RELATED: Expedition and Small-Ship Cruises to Book NowThat’s why Blanchard was keen to confirm his line’s presence this year during an online press conference.
“UnCruise is going to be there,” he said.
What’s more, the line is making it easier for any clients cancelled from larger ships to join them as needed. UnCruise is offering $500 off per cabin for clients who can provide proof of an affected 2021 booking. This is in addition to the line’s current promotion of $600 off, for a total savings of up to $1,100.
That said, there is still a chance that the large-ship cruise lines could sail to Alaska in 2021 if the U.S. government suspended (at least temporarily) the PVSA in order to bypass Canada for the season. However, Blanchard notes that this bureaucratic endeavor would be very difficult to accomplish.
“The hurdle to get an exemption is substantial,” he said.
Still, small operators are in favor of a temporary waiver, knowing that without a full cruise season in the region, Alaska’s economy, of which they themselves are locals, will be decimated.
These are “literally our friends and family members” who are affected, said Zakary Kirkpatrick, corporate director of marketing and public relations for Alaskan Dream Cruises (ADC), during a press conference held by the line.
Even if the legislation were repealed, ships carrying 250 passengers or more must first be individually approved by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to accept passengers again as part of its latest “Framework for Conditional Sailing Order.”
There is sailing in Alaska this summer.
As it stands now, “CDC has not been forthright in providing good guidance,” according to Blanchard, so getting approval in time for the season is another challenge. It’s his understanding, for instance, that large ships can take up to 120 days to be reactivated for service.
Nonetheless, members of the U.S. Overnight Passenger Small-Boat Operators Coalition that are exempt from the PVSA and the CDC order will still set sail in Alaska. Blanchard, who chairs the coalition, mentioned such additional players as American Cruise Lines (ACL), ADC, The Boat Company and Lindblad Expeditions.
“American Cruise Lines operates only U.S.-flagged ships on itineraries with domestic ports of call and is planning to operate as scheduled,” said Charles B. Robertson, president and CEO of ACL. “We are proud of our American roots and, together with other U.S. cruise operators, we look forward to contributing to the local economies that are impacted so significantly by the Canadian order.”
All aforementioned coalition cruise lines are planning to start most Alaska 2021 sailings in May. ADC is set to operate a few sailings as soon as April.
“In our restart, we are committed to comply with federal, state and municipal government health mandates,” ADC said in a statement. “In addition, we are heartened by the news of vaccine rollouts. The average age of our cruisers is over 60, so many booking cruises with us expect to have received the vaccination in the coming months or have already received the vaccination. It is clear that there is demand for Alaska travel.”
For UnCruise, health protocols include pre-boarding testing for COVID-19 as well as required mask-wearing in public interior spaces. Masks will not be required in private cabins, on open decks when physically distanced or while kayaking and hiking with one's immediate travel group.
As such, the “chances of transmission on the boat are astronomical,” Blanchard said.
One remaining variable for small-ship lines is whether or not coalition member Victory Cruise Lines (VCL) will be able to introduce its new Ocean Victory to Alaska as originally planned for 2021. Unlike the other ships, VCL’s maiden vessel is a chartered one operating under a foreign flag.
“Victory Cruise Lines is aware of the Transport Canada decision, which impacts our Great Lakes season and the debut of the Ocean Victory in Alaska,” said John Waggoner, CEO of VCL. “We continue working with government officials, fellow cruise lines as well as travel partners and look forward to returning to cruising when policies allow.”
In the meantime, mainstream cruise lines such as Holland America Line continue to be in a wait-and-see holding pattern. The brand issued a statement to travel advisors explaining its current position:
“We are disappointed to learn about Canada’s decision to extend the interim order that prohibits cruise ships from sailing in its waters and calling on Canadian ports through February 2022 (one year from now). This extension, if not amended as pandemic conditions improve, would require us to cancel our Alaska (West Coast) and Canada/New England (East Coast) cruise vacation seasons this year. Given the unexpected length of the order, it will take us some time to assess whether there are any options to preserve a portion of the 2021 Alaska season.”