A BIG WHAMMO:Is Alaska cruise season baked?
Dan Blanchard has tears in his eyes. “This is the worst frickin’ news, even though I stand to benefit,” says the CEO of UnCruise Adventures, who is opining on Canada’s decision to extend its cruise ban on ships over 100 passengers entering Canadian waters, thereby throwing a gorilla-sized monkey wrench into the cruise industry’s Alaska season.
That’s because US federal law prohibits foreign-registered ships from sailing between two American ports without stopping at a foreign port in between, ensuring that large cruise ships bound for Alaska must either begin voyages in Canada or stop there on the way.
And with Canada adding another year onto its existing ban (which had been set to expire on Feb. 28) and thus effectively wiping out Alaska’s summer season, that’s not likely to happen.
“This extension, if not amended as pandemic conditions improve, would require us to cancel our Alaska (West Coast) and Canada / New England (East Coast) cruise vacation seasons this year,” said Princess and Holland America Line in a statement, adding, “Given the unexpected length of the order, it will take us some time to assess whether there are any options to preserve a portion of the 2021 Alaska season.”
The news has “shaken the boots of the industry,” says UnCruise’s Blanchard via Zoom. “The news is obviously devastating for my home state. So many of my friends own businesses that are attached to the cruise industry and will now go through a second year with absolutely no revenue.”
And while Blanchard says he doesn’t like the news from Canada, he says he respects that the Canadian government is “working hard to keep its citizens safe.”
At the same time, he says “loose guidelines” from the US Center for Disease Control on how and when cruise ships can sail again are also causing confusion and handcuffing the industry.
Blanchard explains that UnCruise Adventures, which boasts seven American owned, flagged, and staffed vessels, is allowed to operate in Alaska this summer, and that he expects ships to be full.
Bookings for summer 2021 were solid last fall, he says, peaking around the end of October, with the phones again beginning to ring in the last couple of weeks.
He says consumers are eager to travel again – especially those who have received vaccinations for the COVID virus. Others are pushing back plans until 2022, he adds, which he says he doesn’t mind because it will create space to accommodate current demand.
Blanchard expects other small adventure cruise operators like Lindblad will be in business too.
As such, he is eager to counter reactionary headlines spurred by the Canadian ban that Alaska’s entire cruise season is lost. “Alaska here we come!” he says. “UnCruise is going to be there!”
However, even at near-full capacity, Blanchard expects to have approximately 5,000 passengers this year – about a thousand less than if his season’s start wasn’t delayed a month until May 16, and a far cry from the estimated 1.3 million cruise passengers Alaska receives annually.
“I’m deeply saddened for the (industry) and I’m deeply saddened for the travel agent community,” he says.
To help, Blanchard says UnCruise is offering consumers with proof of a cancelled cruise booking on a large ship not sailing up to $1,100 off the price of cabin this summer or fall – an offer that will also help agents. “Everyone benefits,” he says.
UnCruise, which re-started cruising again in Alaska last August after the pandemic’s first wave abated, was forced to cancel its season almost immediately when a passenger tested positive for COVID-19 – a test that turned out to be a false positive, Blanchard says.
As such, the cruise operator will subject all future passengers to a triple-test regime as part of its strict health and safety protocols.
Moreover, he says, the state has earned praise as “absolutely the safest place” during COVID with low transmission and high vaccination rates, ensuring that “Alaska is setting itself up to be ready for the summer season.”
Still, Blanchard’s thought quickly return to his Alaska travel industry colleagues.
“This is a tough one to take… We were just getting back on our feet and this is a big whammo,” he says. “We will run, but there are many who won’t.”
First published at Travel Industry Today