Southeast Alaska reacts to CDC lifting no-sail order for cruise ships

A crowd of older people gather next to a giant cruise ship
Passengers from the mega ship Norwegian Joy disembark in May 2019 at Ketchikan’s Berth 3 downtown. (KRBD photo by Leila Kheiry)

Across Southeast Alaska, industry representatives and local officials are cautiously optimistic about the CDC’s lifting of the no-sail order on cruise ships. Alaska was on track to receive more than 1.2 million cruise passengers this year. But that was zeroed out by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Friday’s 40-page order replaces the mid-March ban with a path to resuming week-long cruises in U.S. waters. It requires comprehensive testing at the beginning and end of each voyage.

“It takes a pretty conservative approach, but it gives them the means to get started,” said Patti Mackey, CEO of Ketchikan Visitors Bureau. “And I think that’s all anybody was looking for at this point.”

“The CDC’s announcement today, allowing the conditional resumption of cruising, is a positive step toward Alaska’s summer visitor season in 2021,” Sarah Leonard, ATIA President and CEO, said in a statement on Friday. “Alaska’s tourism businesses – working with our cruise partners – are committed to the health and safety of our teams, our communities, and our visitors. Alaska’s wide open spaces are a safe travel destination, and we look forward to resuming cruising while adapting to public health measures.”

Some of those measures include CDC language requiring cruise lines to get permission from the communities they visit.

That’s key, says Juneau City Manager Rorie Watt, because it allows health authorities to weigh risks. 

“Obviously, we’re going to be interested in risk to our population and ability to provide medical services,” Watt said. “So I think there’s a lot to digest. And we don’t really have that much time to plan.”

For elected officials in Skagway, there’s excitement in the town where more than 90% of the local economy is tied to the cruise industry.

“Skagway’s ready to rock,” said Mayor Andrew Cremata. “Some of the obstacles that lie in our path are the fact that Canada still has to open up its borders or at least its ports.”

He’s referring to the current ban on cruise ships in Canadian ports, which was recently extended until late February. Additional extensions to the Canadian port ban could  block Alaska’s 2021 cruise season. That’s because U.S. law prevents foreign-flagged vessels from carrying American citizens between domestic ports. 

Alaska-bound cruise ships always make a stop in Victoria or Vancouver.

As coronavirus cases rise in Alaska and the rest of the U.S. there’s still skepticism locally that cruises will be able to return in the midst of a pandemic. The CDC’s current travel warnings still advise against cruise travel.

Ketchikan City Council member Sam Bergeron says it’s hard to imagine cruises resuming at the current rate of transmission of COVID-19.

“I think if we want to resume cruising, I think the public safety has to come first,” Bergeron said, “including for the people that are taking the cruises.”

He says more effective treatment — like a COVID vaccine — before next season could make all the difference.

The CDC’s original no-sail order was influenced by outbreaks earlier this year on the Diamond Princess and Grand Princess which infected hundreds of passengers and crew and led to at least 10 deaths.