By Gretchen Wehmhoff
Skagway may see some semblance of a tourist season after over a year without cruise ships. All it took was an act of Congress.
On Monday, President Joe Biden signed the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act (ATRA) which sailed through both bodies of the U.S. Congress in an unprecedented ten days.
The act, designed to remove obstacles holding back cruise sailings to Alaska, was sponsored and promoted by the Alaska delegation of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young. It provides a temporary reprieve to the enforcement of a century old law, the Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA).
The PVSA prohibits foreign-flagged passenger vessels from sailing directly between U.S. ports. Usually, vessels arriving in Alaska from other U.S. ports such as Seattle or Los Angeles must dock in Canada on their way. With Canada’s decision to prohibit cruise ships in their waters and ports, cruise ships were stymied. The ATRA will allow suspension of the U.S. law until next year.
“This bill represents an essential first step toward getting cruise ships back to Skagway. Our economy is almost solely dependent on cruise tourism and our future as a community is at stake,” said Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata in a press release. He applauded the “dogged determination” of Murkowski, Sullivan and Young in getting the bill through Congress.
Cremata warned residents to temper their anticipation as the harbor towns, cruise lines and CDC agree on COVID-19 safety protocol while ships are in port.
He reported at the May 20 assembly meeting that he continues to work with other Southeast port communities and cruise industry representatives to “hammer out” a port agreement. The Skagway Assembly would then review and vote to approve the plan. Cremata said he was still waiting on plans from the port operator.
“I’m disappointed that our port operator, White Pass, has not provided me with any information regarding COVID-related port operations readiness,” said Cremata in his report.
White Pass and Yukon Route (WP&YR) Executive Director of Human Resources & Strategic Planning, Tyler Rose, responded to Cremata’s statement during public testimony saying he wanted to correct the record.
“It was disheartening to see the mayor’s report in which he expresses his disappointment with White Pass.”
Rose said that White Pass, cruise line agencies and MOS have had several meetings with other Southeast towns.
“There are draft plans coming together for potential regional agreement in response to the news in recent weeks,” Rose said. He was critical of Cremata’s “public admonishment.”
“For the good of all of us in this community we need to work together,” Rose said.
Cremata addressed the issue in his closing remarks.
“It’s good to hear that White Pass is receptive to getting this, what I hope is just going to be a one-page document, done,” said Cremata. He continued, “It’s an ever-changing thing, that’s for sure.”
As of deadline, multiple cruise lines announced plans to sail at least seven vessels to Alaska.
Norwegian Cruise Line’s (NCL) Norwegian Bliss will start sailing in early August through mid-October with Skagway on the itinerary. NCL recently donated $10 million to port communities in Southeast Alaska to assist the communities through the slow season. Skagway received $2 million.
Royal Caribbean International (RCI) plans to send Serenade of the Seas north, however it does not appear to have Skagway on the itinerary. RCI’s Ovation of the Seas will set sail in mid-August, also docking in Skagway. Celebrity Cruises, part of the RCI group, will send the Summit to Alaska in late July.
Carnival Cruises is sending their Carnival Miracle at the end of July and Princess Cruises plans to sail the Majestic Princess around the same time. Holland America Line is preparing the Nieuw Amsterdam to begin voyages the Inside Passage at the end of July with 11 scheduled departures, but they skip Skagway this year.
America Cruise Lines announced in April plans to operate their scheduled Alaska season with a reduced capacity, sending the American Constellation on 8-11 day voyages up the Inside Passage.
All the mentioned companies will require clients and crew to be vaccinated with their final dose 14 days prior to sailing. American’s website has testing protocols for unvaccinated guests, but notes that policies could change based on the requirements of the region.
RCI’s CEO Richard Fain told Cruise Industry News, “A cruise ship can be as safe or safer than your local community … as a result the CDC has now clarified and updated their rules to allow us to start sailing from U.S. ports.”
It appears cruise companies are limiting their 2021 Alaska season to Southeast Alaska. As of deadline, no ships are expected in Seward or Anchorage.
Editors Note: After going to press, the State of Alaska announced that the State of Alaska, several southeast Alaska communities (including Skagway), and Norwegian Cruise Line signed the first Local Multi-Port Agreement, accomplishing a large component of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Conditional Sailing Order.
Editors Note: The story was corrected to show that Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam’s itinerary does not include Skagway. The previous version mistakenly had the ship arriving in Skagway.