Two Alaskan Ports Reach Different Conclusions on Small-Ship Cruising

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The small communities of Haines and Ketchikan have come to different conclusions about the restart of small-ship cruising in Southeast Alaska. When American Cruise Lines asked the two towns whether it would be possible to host the 170-passenger cruise ship American Constellation at the end of this month, Ketchikan’s local government gave its approval and Haines declined.

Foreign-flagged cruise ships have canceled all Alaska itineraries this season: these far larger vessels cannot make the voyage north from Seattle due to a Canadian ban on passenger ships with a capacity of more than 500 people. However, the small American-flagged vessels that normally operate on the same route do not need to stop in Canada in order to comply with U.S. cabotage regulations, and they are under the size limit for the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC)’s cruise ship no-sail order. Effective June 6, Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy has lifted the state’s 14-day quarantine requirement for inbound visitors, clearing away a hurdle for the possible return of small-ship cruising in the region. In anticipation of Dunleavy’s decision, American Cruise Lines announced plans to start commercial operations aboard the newly-built American Constellation with 11-day itineraries homeported in Juneau. 

The Alaska Municipal League, an association representing the state’s local governments, has expressed skepticism about such a resumption. The association has called for a joint agreement with cruise lines on passenger pre-quarantine procedures, contingency plans for disembarkation of sick passengers, resources for contact tracing and an assurance of data transparency in the event of an onboard outbreak. The AML has recommended  “a moratorium on small ship cruising until mutually agreed-upon protocols can be finalized between the industry and the communities.” 

Those protocols will likely not be finalized in time to inform the debate on American Cruise Lines’ first voyage, Ketchikan city manager Karl Amylon told public radio station KTOO. The cruise line’s own procedure calls for pre-trip COVID testing for passengers and crew, along with a 25 percent capacity reduction on board to provide for social distancing. Ketchikan has accepted the plan and the cruise line’s proposal, and it expects to welcome American Constellation in July. 

“This is an opportunity to check out what seems to be a very good plan on a very small number instead of practicing on the first 4,000 passenger ship next year or the year after,” Ketchikan port director Steve Corporon told KTOO. 

Haines, a far smaller community located about 300 miles to the northwest, reached the opposite conclusion. Last week, its local assembly voted to ask American Cruise Lines to postpone its request to call at Haines indefinitely. 

In addition to concerns about COVID-19, community leaders indicated that the economic benefits of welcoming a 170-passenger ship might not be worth the risk. “There’s not going to be a tangible economic jump from the small cruise ships coming to town because so many tour operators are not functioning right now. There’s a lot of stores that aren’t open,” borough clerk Alekka Fullerton told KTOO. 

Social distancing could create additional disincentives for shore excursion operators. “While [limiting capacity] seems like a great plan from a mitigation standpoint . . . if you ask a tour operator to run a 15 passenger bus with only seven people in it, does it become an economic hindrance to them to actually run that?” said Haines tourism director Steven Auch.

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