Over a century of cruising to Alaska has allowed an incredible tourism product to develop, combining immersive on-shore attractions with scenery unlike any other. This year was meant to be a bumper cruise season.
But then the corornavirus pandemic stopped everything.
With ships unable to sail, this downturn is set to drain the lifeblood from local tourism businesses and make it even more difficult to experince the vast state.
Cruising here dates back to 1902 when small Canadian steamships operated sightseeing tours to America’s 49th state. However, the phenomenon of Alaska cruises where ships navigate the Inside Passage – an amphitheatre of tidewater glaciers – has only been popular since the 1960s due to the advent of mass air travel.
Last year proved a bumper season with an armada of ships visiting between May and September, and this prompted Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) to project 1.44 million passengers for 2020.
That was before coronavirus paralysed the global cruise industry. In mid-March, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would close its ports to vessels carrying more than 500 passengers until at least July 1; this prompted a decision in early May by many cruise lines to throw in the towel and cancel their entire Alaska season.
Cruises visiting this land of scenic superlatives offer round-trip or one-way sailings, but the Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 requires foreign-flagged ships to make at least one international stop if cruising between US ports. Most vessels operate under a flag of convenience, so to comply with this law, cruise lines departing San Francisco, Seattle and Anchorage include a visit to a Canadian port which is customarily Victoria, or alternatively they use Vancouver as their embarkation port. This is why Trudeau’s decree was such a body blow to the industry.
“The announcement was devastating not just to the hundreds of businesses that rely on cruise passengers for their livelihoods but for the communities that receive a large portion of their revenue from visitors’ taxes and fees,” said Sarah Leonard, President and CEO of Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA).
Tourism is a pillar of Alaska’s economy, supporting 52,000 jobs. The summer-long cruise season represents 57 per cent of visitors and ATIA estimates each cruise passenger spends $624 (£508) on average in the state, so the cancellation of 479 sailings – accounting for CLIA’s projected 1.44 million passengers – will result in a massive shortfall in revenue of $793 million (£645 million).
While cruise ships are the transportation of choice for visitors to Alaska, the backbone of tourism is the manifold tour operators that show off the state. More than anywhere in the cruise atlas, excursions are integral to the Alaska experience.
When it comes to untamed natural beauty Alaska is without equal; but the most impressive scenery, such as towering ice fjords, is remote and can only be reached by air, whereas exploring the vast national parks requires ATVs, hovercraft and specialist outdoor sports equipment.
Squadrons of floatplanes take off from Juneau to view the mighty Norris, Taku and Mendenhall Glaciers; eager passengers climb aboard the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad in Skagway bound for the Klondike at the summit via impossibly high trestle bridges; in Ketchikan cruise ships lining the waterfront attract swarms of tourist boats ready to take guests for an exploration of the Tongass National Forres.
That’s a typical snapshot of cruise ports in Alaska; but this summer these principal ports on every Alaska itinerary will be more like ghost towns.
The Ketchikan Visitors Bureau asked 75 local businesses how long they could survive without tourists in town. Only about a quarter said they could endure until next summer.
On a more positive note, Jared Gross, manager of Southeast Exposure, an outdoor adventure centre based in Ketchikan, said: “We have low overheads and are trying to figure out how we can attract local business this summer, it won’t come close to replacing revenue from cruise tourists but I’m confident we’ll survive the shutdown to see 2021.”
In Skagway it’s a similar picture. Tyler Rose, White Pass & Yukon Route’s executive director of strategic planning, said: “We are working with our employees, partners and the community towards a safe restart to operations when it is appropriate to do so. The White Pass & Yukon Route has overcome many hardships over our 122-year history.”
It makes sense for many local businesses to show frontier spirit and pivot their sightseeing trips and hospitality services to Alaska residents; but the state’s population of 730,000 represents just 50 per cent of the number of expected dollar-laden cruise tourists this year. While this revenue could soften the pandemic’s punch in some measure, it won’t be a panacea.
Princess Cruises and Holland America Line are the biggest cruise ship operators to Alaska; they also own five wilderness lodges as well as glass-domed rail cars. Celebrity Cruises have three ships in the region and as of May 22, they plan on resuming operations from August 7 offering a variety of seven-night ‘Glacier Cruises’ from Seattle, Seward (Anchorage) and Vancouver.
So can Alaska look forward to a second gold rush in 2021? Lynn Narraway, Managing Director UK and Ireland for Holland America Line is upbeat.
"We’re seeing a strong number of re-bookings for Alaska next summer, which highlights that guests are still very keen to plan ahead for these special, bucket-list trips,” she said. “Destinations that feel more ‘remote’, such as Alaska, encompass many experiences guests are looking forward to – being immersed in nature and getting that real sense of outdoor adventure."
For adventurous cruisers who can’t wait that long, two small ship operators who approach cruising from a different tangent to larger ships are hoping to start operations in July. UnCruise Adventures and American Cruise Lines are offering seven-night round-trip sailings from the Alaskan capital Juneau – but for Britons, getting there could be easier said than done, with quarantine implications and travel restrictions.
Unshackled by lockdown, humpback whales and orcas, grizzly bear and caribou, bald and golden eagles are free to add natural splendour to the Alaskan wilderness. The call of the wild is sure to be even louder next year.