Small cruise lines are still planning a 2020 season in Southeast Alaska, but protocols are unclear

Kayaks are stacked up on the stern of the small cruise ship Wilderness Explorer, which makes trips in Southeast Alaska. (Photo by Ed Shoenfeld / CoastAlaska)

A “no sail order” barring cruises on large ships is in effect until late July. But smaller vessels are exempt. And these smaller, boutique cruise lines are still taking bookings for Southeast Alaska.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exempted vessels carrying less than 250 passengers from the general no sail order that’s keeping the big players like Carnival, Royal Carribean and Norwegian from bringing its ships to Alaska.

The Southeast Alaska town of Wrangell, population 2,500, only gets a sliver of Alaska’s total cruise ships passengers, so the cancellations from the big three cruise lines isn’t as big of a deal.

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Wrangell’s Economic Development Director Carol Rushmore says the first small ships are tentatively scheduled for early June.

“Again, a lot of it’s going to be dependent on what’s going to happen statewide, what’s going to happen regionally. There’s still so many decisions being made,” she said.

American Cruise Lines, Alaska Dream Cruise Lines, UnCruise and other small ships continue to market sailings for Southeast Alaska, calling in Juneau, Sitka and Haines.

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UnCruise markets itself as an alternative to the mass-tourism cruise experience. Speaking on behalf of the company, Liz Galloway says crews plan to take extra precautions — extra on-board cleaning and screening crew and passengers for symptoms before they sail.

“As you know our groups are pretty small, 22 to 86 passengers in total, so we wouldn’t have to deal with as much as a megaship would,” she said.

Galloway says the safety of port communities is as much a priority as that of the passengers and crew. But not much is set in stone. Operations for the cruise line are still hammering out protocol. The City of Wrangell says it hasn’t received COVID-19 protocol plans.

Wrangell City Manager Lisa Von Bargen is skeptical that even smaller cruise ships could operate under the current statewide mandate requiring out-of-state arrivals to quarantine for 14 days before mixing in a community.

“And what the likelihood of passengers being willing to do that, my guess is that is unlikely,” she said.

Galloway says UnCruise would comply with state health mandates. That means postponing sailings or requiring quarantine of its passengers ahead of sailings.

Von Bargen notes that even if travel restrictions were lifted, state and local social distancing mandates are still in place that ban gatherings of 10 or more people in Wrangell.

“And that’s certainly not something that is done,” she said. “Even on the small ships.”

The Petersburg Borough took some of its own steps to limit cruise ships coming to the town of less than 3,000 people. The city passed a measure saying all ships able to carry 25 or more people must receive approval from local officials.

But this declaration expires at the end of May, right when small ships are offering bookings. It remains to be seen whether there is a small cruise season. It will depend on market conditions — if enough people book berths and also whether state officials allow it.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has said he wants to reopen parts of the economy. It’s not yet clear how that will impact the tourism sector.

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