(3:45 p.m. EST) -- The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global stage last year resulted in the shutdown of the cruise industry, including the cancellation of the entire 2020 Alaska cruise season.
Now, just days into the New Year, the 2021 Alaska cruise season already appears to be on shaky footing.
On January 6, Princess Cruises announced it would postpone its sailings until mid-May, affecting several Alaska voyages and Pacific Coastal cruises.
On the same day, Holland America Line announced deeper cancellations, pausing several Alaska-bound ships into May and even June. In addition to the voyage cancellations, the line also announced that any associated overland cruisetours for these voyages would be cancelled as well.
The Alaska cruise season typically runs from late-April to early October.
Alaska, particularly communities in Southeast Alaska, rely heavily on cruise tourism as a major economic driver.
In October, Skagway Borough Mayor Andrew Cremata told a virtual Seatrade panel that his town -- a former Gold Rush hotspot-turned-tourist destination nestled at the end of Lynn Canal not far from the Alaska-British Columbia border -- that his town had been negatively impacted by the loss of the 2020 Alaska cruise season.
"This is about survival for Skagway," said Cremata, who said that the cruise industry makes up as much as 95 percent of the town's overall revenue. "It is essential for our small businesses that they are able to engage the cruise ship companies and the cruise ship passengers in a normal way. The local businesses are going to go 17 months in a best-case scenario without any revenue."
Alaska remains a very seasonal destination, though efforts have been made to extend it. This year, for example, Norwegian Cruise Line is running one of the longest seasons on record, with voyages from Seattle scheduled to run to Alaska well into October aboard Norwegian Bliss, Norwegian Encore and Norwegian Sun.
Roughly 1.44 million cruise passengers were expected to sail to Alaska in 2020, on 600 individual sailings that would bring in nearly $800 million in passenger spending and an additional $1 billion in revenue for services such as pilotage, provisioning and waste removal.
Several cruise lines have already shortened or cancelled their 2021 Alaska seasons.
Carnival Cruise Line has cancelled all voyages to Alaska and other destinations from San Francisco and San Diego aboard Carnival Miracle. These longer-duration cruises are currently not permitted under new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that prohibit voyages over one week in length.
Carnival Freedom is still scheduled, at this time, to make its roundtrip voyages to Alaska from Seattle beginning April 27, 2021.
Holland America Line, one of the largest and longest-operating cruise lines in Alaska and British Columbia, has announced it will postpone the start of its Alaska season across the board.
Eurodam, Oosterdam and Zuiderdam sailings are postponed through early June, while voyages to Alaska aboard Koningsdam, Nieuw Amsterdam and Noordam are postponed through mid-May 2021. This affects voyages from Vancouver, Seattle and Whittier. Associated cruisetours during this period, in Alaska, the Yukon and the Canadian Rockies, are cancelled as well.
Princess Cruises has postponed the resumption of its global cruise operations, including voyages to Alaska and Pacific Coastal repositioning cruises, through May 14, 2021.
Windstar Cruises cancelled its 2021 Alaska season, which consisted primarily of 10-and-11-day departures aboard Star Breeze from Vancouver. The line has also cancelled all 2021 itineraries with any U.S. port of call.
Though there remains the potential for a shortened Alaska cruise season this year, several factors could still complicate it.
Transport Canada has banned all cruise operations within Canadian waters through February 28, 2021. The order, which was initially put in place last spring at the start of the coronavirus outbreak in North America, has been extended several times since then, and could be extended again.
British Columbia, home to the popular homeport of Vancouver and port of call (and capital city) of Victoria, has recommended against even domestic travel within the province and interprovincial, domestic travel, in addition to recommending residents refrain from nonessential travel. Leaders have also indicated their preference to not allow meaningful travel until vaccines are widely available.
The idea that the provincial government will, in the span of three months, turn around and welcome international cruise passengers, seems unrealistic.
Also complicating matters is the fact that the Canada-U.S. Border currently remains closed to most travellers, through at least January 21, 2021. That order is likely to be extended until cases subside south of the border, in the United States.
Canada also has strict entry requirements should the Canada-U.S. Border closure be lifted. Beginning January 7, travellers arriving into Canada by air are required to provide proof of a COVID-negative PCR test, in addition to a mandatory quarantine period of 14 days. Failure to do so is punishable by fines and even jail time.
proof of COVID vaccination will not exempt travellers from either the COVID-19 PCR testing requirement, nor the 14-day quarantine rule.
For an Alaska cruise season to operate, cruise lines need full cooperation with the British Columbia and Canadian governments, along with Transport Canada. Voyages from Seattle to Alaska are required to stop in Victoria (or similar foreign port) in order to satisfy U.S. cabotage laws.
That means that, under current U.S. law, if Canada bans cruise ships for the remainder of the Alaska 2021 season (or beyond), the United States would have to amend the Passenger Vessel Services Act in order to allow sailings to depart.
Small, U.S-flagged fleets like those belonging to American Cruise Lines and Un-Cruise Adventures, would be exempt.
With vaccines being rolled out in both Canada and the United States, however, it is still possible to see a limited cruise season in British Columbia and Alaska.
Residents, stakeholders and loyal passengers from all walks of life are no doubt counting on it.