Cruisers can still sail to Alaska this year – here’s how
UnCruise Adventures’ CEO Dan Blanchard

Cruisers can still sail to Alaska this year – here’s how

TORONTO — Despite Canada’s newly extended ban on cruise ships, there’s still a way for cruisers to sail to Alaska this year.

A small number of U.S.-flagged cruise companies has been given the green light to sail to Alaska – through Canada – thanks to the Passenger Vessel Services Act, a protective act implemented by the U.S. government in 1886 to protect American sailors, U.S. companies and U.S.-built vessels from foreign competition. Under this protection, U.S. cruise lines like Lindblad Expeditions, The Boat Company, Alaska Dream Cruises, American Cruise Lines and UnCruise Adventures will be operating in Alaska this summer, unaffected by Canada’s cruise ship ban, which has just been extended to Feb. 28, 2022.

Cruisers can still sail to Alaska this year – here’s how

UnCruise Adventures’ CEO Dan Blanchard

In a media briefing last Friday, UnCruise Adventures’ CEO, Dan Blanchard, said that even though this small coalition of cruise lines stands to gain from the ban by scooping up market share and potential cruisers that would have sailed out of Vancouver, the ramifications are still “devastating” to his home state of Alaska, with many small businesses that rely on the cruise industry at risk of seeing “zero revenue” for a second consecutive year.

“I’m deeply saddened by the news, for my friends who work in large ship and foreign ship operations, for the Alaska businesses that are definitely going to be hurt by this, and for the travel agent community,” said Blanchard. “This is the worst news that we can have because there are people who rely on those ships, there are mouths to be fed. This has really shaken the boots of the industry.”


Sailings will depart May 16 on six ships

Though the pandemic has forced UnCruise Adventures to shorten its Alaska season this year, with its May 16 resumption date scheduled about a month later than it would normally start, 2021 will mark its 25th year in the state, giving it the distinction of providing more Alaska sailings per season than any other company on the planet.

Sailings will depart from Seattle onboard six small ships, with one in reserve to accommodate possible demand. On its first sailings, Blanchard said space is being kept open in May and that capacity is being kept to around 75%. As the cruise line approaches June and more people become vaccinated, it will increase capacity to about 90%.

According to Blanchard, the cruise line is seeing bookings from families, singles and couples, including from one woman who booked a sailing to the Galapagos just a day after receiving her second COVID-19 vaccine. It started to see bookings increase in late October but activity hasn’t necessarily picked up until last week.

In a regular year, the company carries approximately 6,000 guests annually to Alaska; this year, with the late start date, that number is expected to fall to around 5,000.

Admittedly, Blanchard said less than 2% of UnCruise Adventures is comprised of Canadians, who typically take advantage of large ocean liners departing for Alaska from Vancouver. Canadians looking to book with UnCruise this year will, of course, have to contend with several travel restrictions, including Canada’s pre-arrival testing requirements and mandatory hotel quarantines. It’s also important to note that Prime Minister Trudeau has strongly recommended that “no one take non-essential trips” as Canada continues to struggle to contain the spread of COVID-19 and all its new variants.


Triple testing and proof of vaccination

As a proud Alaskan, Blanchard praised Alaska for its low transmission rate and its rapid rollout of vaccines. The state has already reached a 20% vaccination rate, with many small communities reaching numbers into the 50-60 percentile. In addition, visitors to Alaska are required to bring printed proof of a qualifying negative COVID-19 test taken no more than 72 hours prior to travel, click here for more information.

To complement the state’s safety measures, UnCruise Adventures has implemented a triple-testing protocol, which includes a PCR test plus two antigen tests the day of departure and during the cruise. This exhaustive approach to testing was made following the company’s attempt to resume operations last summer, during which it was forced to cancel its entire 2020 Alaska season after a passenger tested positive for COVID-19 three days after departure. The kicker? It was determined afterward that the passenger’s test result was a false-positive.

“Remote PCR kits are now available in Juneau and on the boat so if we were to get a positive like last year, we can immediately test with an antigen or potentially a PCR test, which is the gold standard,” said Blanchard, adding that anyone who tests positive will be transported by boat into town so as not to shut down the entire vessel. “We feel quite strongly that once you add that many tests and you’re isolating your crew when you’re in port and all these other measures your guests pledge to before they arrive on the boat, that the chances of transmission on a boat are mathematically out of this world.”

As for proof of vaccination and whether UnCruise Adventures will follow the lead of American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC), which will start requiring proof from passengers on July 1, Blanchard said “not right yet,” as the company isn’t fully confident on when its crew will be vaccinated first.

“We are working with the state of Alaska to try to get priority for tourism workers as active essential workers on the list, and we think there’s a very good likelihood of that,” he said. “It’s just a question of when that will happen. Obviously, (AQSC CEO) John Waggoner has some good confidence with the states he works in that they’re going to be able to get some early vaccines for crew.”


Big ships in Alaska: “At best, it would be July 1”

When asked by one reporter whether he anticipates ocean liners to resume Alaska operations at all this year from Seattle, Blanchard said it’s likely that the industry won’t see any activity before July.

“I was on the phone with CLIA and our rep for Holland America and Princess last night and asked, ‘If we could get an exemption to the Passenger Vessel Services Act in the next three weeks through Congress, could you start June 1?’ And the answer was a very shaky probably not. At best, it would be July 1, if they could,” he said.

Blanchard has been advised by friends in the big-ship industry that it generally takes between 110 and 120 days to activate a vessel. With ships sitting in Asia at the moment, “it’s just simple math economics,” he said. “If they can get there by July 1, maybe some ships that are currently staffed or a little closer physically might be able to pull off running a season.”

In addition to the logistics of geography, Blanchard added that another major hurdle for big-ship companies is the lack of information about the CDC’s ‘Framework for Conditional Sailing Order,’ which was introduced on Oct. 30. The Framework, which replaced the CDC’s longstanding No Sail Order, is meant to be a guideline for cruise lines to follow as they work towards the resumption of operations.

“The CDC has not been forthright in providing good guidance to cruise lines on what they need to do,” said Blanchard. “They sent us a loose framework but it’s been really difficult for cruise lines to get a reflection on what the CDC really wants.”


Booking promotion

UnCruise Adventures is offering clients who are currently booked on a large ship in 2021, US$500 per cabin off its list. This promotion can be combined with the company’s current $600 offer for a combined $1,100 offer so long as clients present proof that they were booked and scheduled for a 2021 sailing that is no longer taking place.

“We feel that if we can help the travel agent community by giving offers to guests who may have booked on big ships, it will help us succeed and help other small ship companies under U.S. flags succeed and that’s a benefit to everyone,” said Blanchard.