By Melinda Munson

The news Feb. 4 shattered Skagway’s hopes for a partial 2021 cruise ship season after COVID-19 wiped out what was supposed to be a bumper 2020. 

Canada announced an extension of its ban on ships carrying 100 or more passengers for another year until Feb. 28, 2022. 

The U.S. Passenger Vessel Services Act, which extends the century-old Jones Act’s requirements for cargo vessels to passenger vessels means foreign-flagged Alaska-bound cruise ships required to stop at a foreign port before reentering the U.S. are now stymied.

“Obviously this was a blow that nobody was expecting,” said Mayor Andrew Cremata.

“At the moment, the narrative is indeed that this does put an end to the possibility of having a cruise ship season There is still a chance that the planets could align, so to speak, and some portion of a cruise ship season happens — but it is a very, very long shot.” 

According to Cremata, Alaska has lobbied since spring 2020 for a waiver from the federal law requiring the ships to stop in Canada, but to no avail. Another idea, in which cruise ships make port at an uninhabited Canadian island, seems unlikely as Transport Canada’s new guidelines prohibit large passenger ships from operating in Canadian waters.

With Skagway’s financial future even more dismal than expected, Borough Manager Brad Ryan is revisiting the 2021 budget. The original budget anticipated 25% of the sales tax revenue from 2019. The revised budget is based on 6% of 2019 revenue.

On Friday, one day after Canada’s announcement, White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad announced the “abolishment” of 27 jobs. Since then, Cremata has heard from multiple Skagwegians who say they can’t stay.

Assemblymember Dustin Stone described Canada’s new extension as a “gut punch.” But he did see a silver lining.

“Now we have a better idea of what we’re facing … we weren’t unprepared for this,” he said.

Cremata, the borough assembly and the visitors department have been working on campaigns to attract independent travelers should cruise ships not materialize.

“We need jobs. Especially the year-round residents. If we lose people it will become a cascading effect,” Cremata said.

A town hall, dubbed Save Our Skagway, was scheduled for Feb. 10. The meeting will focus on tourism strategies and pulling Skagway through to 2022. (The Skagway News will report on the meeting in its Feb. 26 edition.)

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, the 2022 tourist season is expected to thrive due to pent-up travel demand. The question is, will Skagway have enough residents and businesses left to cater to visitors. 

Tom Cochran, chair of the Ports and Harbors Advisory Board, thinks the answer is yes.

“Skagway’s been a boom-or-bust town since the gold rush. We’ve been through ups and downs before and we always come through ‘em — and we will again,” he said.