UPDATED – Feb. 4, 2021
Canada appears to have now torpedoed a big chunk of the Alaska cruise business.
Most major Alaska cruises now stop in the port of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
The order further advised “Canadian citizens and permanent residents to avoid all travel on cruise ships outside Canada until further notice.” That advisory should not greatly affect the tour business given the smallish population of Canada, but the closure of the Vancouver to major cruise lines will wreak havoc on tours to Alaska.
Some have suggested tours to 49th state could be helped by exempting foreign-flagged ships from the federal Passengers Service Act, which requires that foreign-flagged vessels leaving the U.S. stop at least once in a foreign port before returning to a U.S. port. But no U.S. lawmakers have, as yet, called for such a fix.
More than half of the tourists who visit Alaska during the summer season arrive or depart on a cruise ship. Of the 2.2. million visitors in 2019, the state reported 1.33 million traveled by cruise ship.
The original story continues below:
In the wake of the COVID-19 driven disaster of 2020 for the Alaska tourism industry, there is bad news coming out of Canada at a time when people are starting to book summer tours to the 49th state.
The new rules create huge problems for the cruise ship industry that is the biggest component of the Alaska tourism business. Many of its ship head north from the port of Vancouver, British Columbia or end their journeys there.
“While it remains unclear what will happen with Alaska cruises in 2021, it looks like Canada is not yet moving in a direction friendly to cruises,” Royal Caribbean International, a major player in the state, warned on its company blog.
It quoted Trudeau’s statement that “travelers will…have to wait for up to three days at an approved hotel for their test results, at their own expense, which is expected to be more than $2,000,” and then spend another 11 days in independent quarantine “under significantly increased surveillance and enforcement.”
“Rules like this, as well as the ban on cruise ships (until at least the end of this month), make operating cruise ships to Alaska or New England effectively impossible because U.S. cabotage laws require foreign-flagged vessels leaving from a U.S. port of call to first call on a ‘distant foreign port’ before returning to the United States,” the company said.
Holland America Line has already announced the Nieuw Amsterdam and Noordam won’t sail for Whittier from Vancouver until at least mid-May with two more ships – the Eurodamn and Oosterdam – on hold at least through the first week of June, and the Zuiderdam delayed until at least “early June.”
Princess Cruises, one of the biggest players in the Alaska market, has sold its Sea Princess and Sun Princess ships that were scheduled for more than a dozen trips to the state this summer. Those trips have been cancelled.
The company shut down all its operations last year – including major lodges on the Kenai Peninsula and near the Denali and Wrangell-St. Elias National Parks and Preserves – but is so far planning to operate those facilities this year.
An unclear future
The continuing global pandemic is, however, stirring huge fears across the industry.
Reporter Robert McGillivray, who has spent more than a decade involved in the cruise industry, offered a dour analysis below.
“The Alaska cruise season is becoming ever more unlikely now that Canada is tightening its travel regulations, COVID-19 vaccination requirements, and PCR testing regime,” he wrote. “Without Canada, the Alaskan cruise season will be unlikely to take place.”
He offered the best hope for small, Seattle-based cruises, given weaker Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regulations for ships carrying less than 250 passengers and their avoidance of British Columbia.
Province Premier John Horgan has declared travel shouldn’t be opened up until Canadians are thorougly vaccinated against COVID-19 and, as McGillvray observed, that could be months away given global distribution problems.
Not to mention questions concerning new, possibly-vaccine-resistant COVID-19 variants and the overall efficacy of the eight different vaccines now in play.
“Variants, 3 New Covid Vaccines, and Contested Efficacy Claims: A Month of Seismic Shifts and Confusion,” Hilda Bastain posted on her blog at PLOS on Sunday. PLOS, the Public Library of Science, is a nonprofit, open-access, peer-reviewed website for science research.
The pandemic-plagued, 2020 Alaska tourism season was a disaster that ended with most of the smallish, in-state operators thankful they made it through the year thanks largely to Alaskans staying in-country to staycation. Many business owners said they doubted they could survive a second such summer.
Massachusetts and New York were devasted by some of the highest death tolls in the nation. Hawaii and Vermont largley closed themselves off to prevent the spread of the virus, which limited deaths but crushed their economies.
Hawaii reported air travel arrivals down by 2,967,703, or 58.3 percent, in just the first half of 2020. The 50th state lost more visitors in the first half of last year than the 49th state welcomed in the record year of 2019.
The McDowell Group, a consultancy, reported slightly more than 2.5 million visitors to Alaska in its October 2018 to September 2019 tourism year. Nearly all of Alaska’s tourists, however, come in the May-September period.
As bad as it gets
Tourism numbers for 2020 aren’t yet available, but state labor economist Neal Fried reported the state’s major tourism centers were hard hit by the lack of visitors.
“Second-quarter industry employment in the Denali Borough, for example, fell 88 percent over the year,” he wrote in the state’s Economic Trends report in December. “Haines’ and Skagway’s stories were similar.”
Denali National Park and Preserve is the economic mainstay of the Denali Borough. The major lodges near the entrance closed because of the pandemic, and the National Park Service banned climbing on Mount Denali, the continent’s tallest peak, for the same reason.
As a result, the area was strangely quiet all summer.
Haines and Skagway are heavily dependent on cruiseship traffic to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park. With no cruiseships coming, Skagway was a near ghost-town.
The city’s few year-round residents are now living in fear the worst could happen again. And it wasn’t all that good in the rest of the state last year.
“Anchorage, home to nearly 40 percent of the state’s population, lost about 4,000 jobs, which was a third of its eating and drinking employment, Fried reported. “That was the state’s biggest numerical loss.
“Other hard-hit areas included the Kenai Peninsula, Fairbanks, and Ketchikan, places where eating and drinking employment dropped by half due to jobs that were cut or never materialized over the summer.”
Everyone was hoping for a recovery by the summer of 2021. That is now looking in doubt.
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington is predicting COVID-19 infections rates will continue falling through the months ahead, but doesn’t expect them to be down to September levels until mid-May.
And in IHME’s “worst-case” scenario, infections start climbing at mid-month, peak in mid-March and then start slipping toward November levels at the end of May.
A May with COVID-19 levels raging at that level would be the worst nightmare of the Alaska tourism industry.