Norwegian Cruise Line signs agreement to return to Alaska

In a step toward a limited, late summer cruise season, Norwegian Cruise Line has signed an agreement with the state of Alaska and several of Alaska’s port operators.

The bow of a cruise ship
The cruise ship Norwegian Sun docks at Juneau’s waterfront on one of the last days of 2014′s tourism season. (Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska News)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office announced an agreement on Thursday which lays out a set of protocols to guide the resumption of Norwegian’s cruises in Alaska. All cruise companies who want to operate in the U.S. this year have to enter into similar agreements with U.S. ports to sail with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s blessing.

“I was quite honestly skeptical that it would actually happen, but I’m just over the moon that it’s actually going to happen, and we’re going to have cruise ships back in Alaska this summer,” said John Binkley, chairman of Ward Cove Dock Group, which owns a new privately-owned cruise ship dock just north of Ketchikan.

The first Norwegian ship would set sail for Alaska in early August. Weeklong voyages would run through late October, visiting Ketchikan, Juneau, Glacier Bay National Park and Hoonah’s Icy Strait Point. Trips through the end of August would include port calls in Skagway, too.

The agreement said one Norwegian ship would run through Southeast Alaska once a week. On Monday, the company said it’s 4,000-passenger vessel Bliss would run the route, but it lists four potential ships for its Alaska itineraries, giving it some flexibility.

“We thank the State of Alaska for facilitating the development of this agreement, the first agreement that will be submitted to CDC for their approval for Alaska,” Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings president and CEO Frank Del Rio said in a statement provided by the governor’s office.

The multi-port agreement aims to fulfill CDC requirements. It lays out safety procedures to prevent COVID-19 from coming aboard, and outlines the Norwegian’s plan to respond to cases during voyages.

The company said it plans to sail only with fully vaccinated guests and crew, and allow cruise tourists to explore port towns independently in line with updated CDC rules. If COVID-19 cases arise on board, infected and exposed people would be quarantined in specially designated staterooms. The agreement said the cruise line will rely on onboard medical facilities to handle cases and “remove the affected individuals from the region following applicable transportation, medical care services, and housing requirements.”

The agreement also sketches out procedures for port operators, including a requirement that 95% of port staff must be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The CDC must approve the plan before ships can set sail.

“Norwegian will be submitting the agreement to the CDC this week, and the CDC has committed to a five-day turnaround,” governor’s office spokesperson Lauren Giliam said Thursday. Norwegian did not respond to inquiries seeking clarification on the agreement.

As of Thursday, private dock owners in Ketchikan, Skagway, Juneau and Hoonah have signed on, as has the Alaska state health department and Hoonah’s city government.

The president and CEO of Huna Totem Corporation, which owns Hoonah’s Icy Strait Point cruise port, said the agreement is a model for other Southeast ports.

“Collaborating with the Governor’s team, the City of Hoonah, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, and the other ports, we created a template to follow for safe operation, getting Alaska back to business,” Huna Totem’s Russell Dick said in the governor’s office’s statement.

Local officials in other Southeast ports say there are still details to work out. Ketchikan’s port director, Mark Hilson, said city officials have yet to sign off on the agreement.

“For each port community that hasn’t signed on, there probably is some tailoring to do and some work to do to get it to a point where the municipal entities are comfortable adopting it,” Hilson said. “But it is progress, and that’s very much appreciated.”

The final agreement will need approval from Ketchikan’s City Council. Hilson said it’s unclear whether Norwegian plans to visit Ketchikan’s city-owned port — the cruise line has a preferential berthing deal with the Ward Cove dock north of city limits — but said the agreement serves as a model for other Alaska cruise lines.

Juneau City Manager Rorie Watt said he’s waiting on an updated cruise ship calendar from Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska — the company that schedules cruise ship port calls — before he signs on.

Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata said his local assembly has not yet green-lit the agreement. Cremata said his community was just added to the document on Wednesday. He said Skagway has “a couple of concerns that we want to address,” but said he doesn’t think they’ll present a major issue “after tweaks are made.”

Cremata earlier this year said he was concerned Skagway would be unable to fulfill a CDC requirement for shoreside hospital space for COVID-19 patients. The cruise company’s framework sidesteps that issue: If a passenger must be disembarked for COVID-19 treatment, they’d be sent to a Seattle hospital. But Norwegian also said its vaccination requirement makes outbreaks unlikely.

The agreement does not clarify whether Norwegian would bypass or restrict visitors in port communities with a major COVID-19 outbreaks. That’s been a worry in Ketchikan, which has seen record-breaking spread of the disease in recent weeks. Ketchikan already missed two port calls from small cruise ships because of the outbreak.

Ketchikan port director Hilson said he expects other lines which visit Alaska — including Princess, Holland America and Royal Caribbean — will soon submit their own proposed safety protocols.

“We’re expecting to hear from them shortly,” Hilson said.

Holland America and Princess say they plan to restart Alaska cruises in late July.

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