Large cruise lines won’t be sailing this year, but smaller lines could be sailing by June

Tourists walk on the cruise ship dock towards Haines’ Fort Seward. (Emily Files)

Large cruise ships operated by companies like Norwegian and Carnival are unlikely to visit Haines and Skagway this summer due to federal restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, some smaller cruise lines are hoping to sail the Lynn Canal as early as June.

There are a few rules that have blocked cruise tourism in Alaska this spring. Back in March, the Centers for Disease Control implemented a no sail order for all cruise ships that carry more than 250 passengers. That remains in place until late July. 

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In addition, the state requires visitors to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival in Alaska. That order is set to expire on June 2 unless the governor decides to extend it. Recently, American Cruise Lines (ACL) has been reaching out to Southeast Alaska communities to see if they would be willing to host smaller cruise ships once the quarantine order ends.

ACL’s ships carry less than 250 people, so they are exempt from the federal no sail order. Haines Tourism Director Steven Auch told the Haines Borough Assembly that ACL has started sharing its initial COVID-19 mitigation plans with port communities.

“At first glance it does look pretty good,” Auch said. “But there are certainly some things that are missed and maybe not addressed.”

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Auch said while ACL’s plan outlines some health precautions, it does not explain details about what would happen if a passenger becomes infected with the coronavirus while on the cruise. 

Auch also raised concerns that it might not be economically viable for tour operators to run shore excursions while implementing certain health precautions. For example, he said American Cruise Lines has suggested limiting the number of people per vehicle on tours. 

“Where that does become difficult is if you ask a tour operator to run say a 15 passenger bus with only seven people in it, does it become an economic hindrance to them to actually run that?” Auch said.

The Alaska Municipal League has been facilitating conversations between communities in Southeast Alaska and small cruise lines to figure out how tourism could continue while keeping residents and visitors safe. The goal is to establish mutually agreed-upon protocols for cruise ships and communities that could be adopted across the region.

The Haines Tourism Advisory Board met Thursday to discuss the possibility of small cruise tourism this summer. 

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Haines Rafting Company owner Andy Hedden said he wants to get a better idea of how the community feels about bringing in visitors during the pandemic. 

“I would love to operate in any capacity that is legitimate, but I would want to do it with the community’s support and approval,” Hedden said.

vAccording to Auch, the Haines Emergency Operations Center has proposed hosting a town hall meeting to discuss opening the community to visitors this summer. No date has been set for the meeting.