By Gretchen Wehmhoff

Predicting the volume of cruise passengers headed to Skagway this summer is an art, spattered with luck and a touch of virus mitigation.

It’s been a constant struggle to get cruise ships to Alaska since March 2020.

As of Nov. 1, 2021, cruise ships are permitted in Canadian waters, relieving the challenges of the U.S. law, the Passenger Vehicle Services Act, that requires foriegn flagged ships to stop in a foreign port when traveling between U.S. ports. In 2021 Canada blocked cruise ships from their waters.

Last year the Alaska congressional delegation of Senators Murkowski and Sullivan and Rep. Don Young was able to pass a year-long reprieve on the law in a race for time to salvage any cruise season for Southeast Alaska.  

Several cruise lines were able to prepare ships, sometimes a 60-day process, and bring a limited number of passengers north to Skagway.  Only Southeast saw a cruise season, with no ships headed to Anchorage, Seward or Valdez.

This month, the delegation introduced legislation to extend the provision for another year to insulate tourism from cruise ships should Canada decide to reinstate a policy prohibiting cruise ships at their ports.

“Alaska’s economy and our communities should not be at the mercy of decisions made by the Canadian government and I will do whatever is needed to ensure Alaskans can prosper,” said Senator Murkowski in a Feb. 18 press release.

“The introduction of this legislation provides another tool in our tool box in the event that it is needed. It also sends a message to the world that Alaska is ready and excited to welcome visitors to our state this upcoming season,” she said.

Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata cautions Skagway residents to “not get sidetracked by numbers that aren’t right for our community.”

Cremata referenced numbers in media reports last year that suggested Skagway received around 110,000 cruise passengers. He said those numbers were based on the capacity of the ships which sailed up the Lynn Canal. In reality, the ships that docked in Skagway were filled to less than capacity. Most ships carried 60% or less of the actual capacity. 

In addition to capacity numbers, the cruise lines had a few ships hampered by rough weather towards the end of the 2021 season. One or two ships changed plans midway through an itinerary due to a passenger emergency or unfavorable seas.

Cremata keeps in touch with the cruise lines and schedulers regularly.

“We’re probably going to see a slow start in May,” he said, citing the normal booking time for early season cruises ran into the latest COVID-19 Omicron surge.

“Now sales are skyrocketing. So we might start out with 40-50% capacity, but get up to 70%,” he said.

That could mean around “give or take” 750,000 passengers, not counting highway travel.

“It’s going to be a good season,” Cremata said.