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Want to see Alaska this summer? Try a small-ship cruise

American Cruise Lines ship
(Ross May / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)

The good news: The bear cam in Alaska’s Katmai National Park is live again and full of images of the park’s 2,200 brown bears frolicking in the sunshine.

The bad news: The cam is the only way nearly 1.4 million cruise-ship passengers are able to watch bears in Alaska this year. Forget about dog sled rides, whale watching and glacier flight-seeing too.

For the most part, cruise ships are not heading to Alaska this summer, a crushing blow to the state’s economy and a disheartening turn of events for passengers.

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Only a few months ago most discussions about the Alaska cruise season (April-October) revolved around the record-breaking number of tourists expected in 2020.

In reality, 99% of the state’s cruises have been canceled, according to industry trade organization Cruise Lines International Assn. (CLIA).

The lines abandoned their Alaska sailings because of coronavirus-related no-sail orders from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and CLIA and a cruise-ship ban imposed by Canada. (Most Alaska sailings include a Canadian port such as Vancouver in the itineraries.)

Among those forced to cancel this year are companies with long histories of carrying travelers to the 49th state: Princess Cruises, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in Alaska last year, and Holland America Line, with more than 70 years of experience.

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Both lines also operate lodges in Alaska, which also will not be open. “This global outbreak continues to challenge our world in unimaginable ways,” said Jan Swartz, president of Princess Cruises, when the line announced its closures.

Cruise lines account for nearly 60% of Alaska’s annual visitors. This year, an anticipated 1.44 million passengers were expected to spend nearly $800 million in the region, said Sarah Leonard, chief executive of the Alaska Travel Industry Assn. The cuts are “devastating, not just to the hundreds of businesses that rely on cruise passengers for their livelihoods but also to the communities that receive a large portion of their revenue from visitor taxes and fees.”

Of course, the pandemic has forced cruise lines to cancel sailings worldwide. But the effect is especially crippling in Alaska, where many people work only during the summer. Canceling this year’s cruises means that some local workers and businesses won’t receive paychecks for 18 months — from fall 2019, when the last ship departed, until the first ship arrives in spring 2021.

Row of shops on Creek Street in Ketchikan
The streets and docks are empty in Ketchikan, Alaska, which was expecting 608 port calls this summer.
(Getty Images/Hemera)
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“Unfortunately, we know some of Alaska’s tourism businesses won’t be able to bounce back from this,” Leonard said.

Uncruise Adventures plans to begin offering weeklong cruises in Southeast Alaska in August (from $3,795 per person, double occupancy) on the Wilderness Adventurer, which holds 60 passengers.

“Our first public sailing, Aug. 1, (will be) on our 7-Night Glacier Bay Adventure itinerary,” said Liz Galloway, communications director. “We have updated our C-19 testing and health safety protocols, and are providing a 66% capacity cap for our travel during this time.”

Other lines had hoped to do short seasons, including American Cruise Lines, which had planned to begin journeys late this month. But American canceled its Alaska season Thursday. In a statement, the company said it made the decision “because the recent spike in [COVID-19] cases around the country has renewed concerns and poses potential complications, as guests both travel to and return home from Alaska.”

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State tourism officials hope independent travelers will help offset the loss of the large cruise ships. But Alaska has set up strict restrictions for visitors to protect its rural population. The rules include providing negative COVID-19 test results or undergoing a 14-day quarantine.

Many destinations are also closed for the season, although Denali National Park & Preserve opened this month with limited services, and Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve has opened, but its lodge is closed.

Californians are still discouraged from embarking on nonessential travel, but if you’re considering booking a trip, it’s good to know that several airlines fly nonstop from Los Angeles to Anchorage, or fly through Seattle to Juneau, the capital and a hub for touring the Inside Passage. Tickets are about $600 round trip.

If you go, you’ll find that Alaska is different this summer. The picturesque seaside town of Sitka, for instance, usually swells by 10,000 to 12,000 cruise-ship passengers on a busy summer day. “You’d be hard-pressed to find 1,000 residents in town these days,” said Cody Jennings, director of the Skagway Tourism Department.

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“It’s so incredibly quiet. We miss the whistles as the ships come in, the hustle and bustle in town. You can walk down the street and not see a soul.“

The streets and docks are also empty in Ketchikan, which was expecting 608 port calls this summer from more than 50 vessels.

“There’s a lot of unemployment,” said Patti Mackey, president and chief executive of the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau. “A lot of companies that focus on tours determined that it’s not in their interest to open at all this year. We’re starting to see some fishing customers, though. That’s good.

“And there’s an upside,” said Mackey. “People are using the time to work out how to make travel by cruise ship safer, so that next year they’ll have all the protocols worked out.

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“We’re hopeful the future will be better.”

Updates:

4:39 PM, Jul. 09, 2020: An earlier version of this story said American Cruise Lines would be begin small-ship cruising in Alaska this summer. The company canceled those plans July 9.


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