Kicking off a season like no other, Alaska’s first big cruise ship since 2019 is on the way

Passengers disembark in May 2019 at Ketchikan’s Berth 3. (Leila Kheiry/KRBD)

The first large cruise ship to visit Alaska since 2019 arrives in a Southeast Alaska port Friday morning.

Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas cast off from the Port of Seattle Wednesday for a short jaunt up to Ketchikan and back. It’s a test sailing to satisfy requirements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it kicks off a cruise season like none other.

When the Serenade of the Seas ties up on Friday, it’ll be the first ship to visit Ketchikan since Oct. 5, 2019 — 21 months ago.

“The fact that big ships are coming back is, really, just so important for the economy of Ketchikan — and I think in the entire Southeast, for that matter,” said Michelle O’Brien, the head of Ketchikan’s Chamber of Commerce.

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Industry figures say 60% of all the state’s visitors arrive on cruise ships.

And O’Brien said the economic boost the cruise industry brings to Ketchikan goes beyond tour operators and dock vendors.

Ketchikan Visitors Bureau President and CEO Patti Mackey said the total loss to Ketchikan’s economy after the cruise season was canceled in 2020 was around $263 million.

“It’s passenger spending, it’s the crew member purchases, it’s the state and local fees, as well as the miscellaneous cruise line purchases too,” Mackey said. “We have a business here that sells salmon to the ships.”

But before Ketchikan can welcome tourists aboard again, the CDC is requiring cruise lines to test their COVID-19 protocols with a so-called “simulated voyage,” according to Brian Salerno, senior Vice President of the Cruise Lines International Association.

“And they go through, basically, all the paces: making sure that all of the procedures are in place, everybody knows their duties, that they know how to handle emergencies,” Salerno said.

A Royal Caribbean representative not authorized to speak to the media said the Serenade of the Seas’ test voyage will carry some 300 passengers — largely Royal Caribbean employees from the company’s Oregon office and their guests, who volunteered to serve as guinea pigs. Another 800 crew will also be aboard.

Cruise lines can get around the simulated voyage requirement by mandating that at least 95% of passengers and crew are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

But Royal Caribbean told Cruise Industry News that it sees itself as a family brand, with kids under 12 making up about 10% of its passengers — and young children are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. So, the cruise line is opting for the test voyage.

Salerno said there will be extra pandemic restrictions on board.

“The mask requirements are going to be in place, and physical distancing will be in place, so there will be some restrictions on the population density in restaurants, casinos and so forth onboard the ship.” he said. “That’s probably the most noticeable difference.”

A Royal Caribbean spokesperson added that most passengers eligible for the shot will be required to be vaccinated.

The off-ship experience will likely look a little different, too: There will be fewer people in port on any given day.

In Ketchikan, for example, the first week of August saw nearly 30 port calls in 2019. But this year? Just seven — about 75% less.

David Wrightson is co-owner of Hoonah Travel Adventures on Chichagof Island. He said he’s paring back his operation for 2021. With fewer passengers expected this summer, he said, the usual business model doesn’t pencil out.

“We’re not even going to pull the boats out for whale watching this season, just because we’re not seeing the numbers that would justify the expense of the increased insurance and all those things on these bigger boats,” Wrightson said.

Wrightson also said he normally runs his business with 13 employees. Right now, he has just one.

The challenges for tourism businesses don’t stop there.

Russell Thomas helps manage several tourism-sector businesses in Ketchikan. He said without the typical passenger volume, it’s difficult and costly to guarantee full-time work for his tour company staff.

And the season is running later than usual — the last port call on the Alaska schedule is Oct. 21. By then, Thomas said, the high school and college-age workers that often staff tourism businesses are back in classes.

“We’re just planning on utilizing the people that we have year-round. Our bookkeepers and our managers and our mechanics — and whoever else that we can find that can drive a boat or drive a van or narrate a tour or whatever — is going to be put to work,” Thomas said.

But while this summer’s cruise season will be short, weirdly-timed and bring few passengers, it’s better than nothing — and everyone’s looking forward to a 2022 cruise season that looks just a bit more normal.

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