Big cruise lines may sit out second Alaska season due to COVID-19

The cruise ship American Constellation on the water
The American Constellation is one of the smaller ships that may sail in Alaska this summer.
(American Cruise Lines)

Hoping to sail to Alaska this summer? The popular cruise destination may miss a second season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The cruise industry, already struggling because ships have been idled for almost a year, was dealt another blow. Canada recently banned large ships from its waters until February 2022.

Canada is a necessary stop for most passenger vessels bound for Alaska. (Almost all large cruise ships are foreign-registered and are banned by maritime law from transporting passengers between ports in the U.S. That means they must stop at a Canadian port if they’re sailing from Seattle, for instance, to Alaska.) The no-sail order is “essential to continue to protect the most vulnerable among our communities,” according to a tweet by Canada’s minister of transport, Omar Alghabra.

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The large cruise lines that dominate Alaskan waters during the May-September season haven’t yet canceled this summer’s sailings, but most have stopped selling space.


The U.S. cruise industry isn’t taking the no-sail order without a fight.

Although some small ships may still be able to cruise, the big-ship ruling caught observers off guard and has been labeled “unacceptable and inconsiderate.”

Among the critics is Cruise Lines International Assn., the industry’s largest trade association, which said it was “surprised by the length of the extension of the order.” The current order had been scheduled to expire this month.

Cruise lines and Alaska legislators seemed united in the goal of having the decision amended.

“We hope to have the opportunity to revisit this timeline,” said CLIA chairman Charlie Ball, adding the group stands ready to work with Canadian officials to find “a path forward.”

Meanwhile, Alaskan legislators complained that they hadn’t been given fair notice. “Canada’s announcement … without so much as a courtesy conversation with the Alaska delegation, is not only unexpected — it is unacceptable,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young said in a joint statement.

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Princess Cruises, with a 50-year tradition of operating in Alaska, released a statement saying it is “hopeful that … the Canadian Transport Minister will rescind the interim order and allow cruise vacations to resume in 2021.”


Princess and Holland America Line, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary in the state this year, plan to operate their Alaskan lodges, in scenic areas such as Fairbanks, Denali and Kenai, welcoming tourists who wish to visit on noncruise vacations.

“The fact that no lines have canceled sailings immediately in light of the news from Transport Canada is evidence of their commitment to Alaska,” Cruise Critic editor Colleen McDaniel said.

“Some of these companies have shared candidly that they’re still hoping to have fruitful conversations with the governing body to discuss the current ban and any potential adjustments,” she said. “There is a level of cautious optimism that there might be some common ground to be found as lines plan for the future.”

Four small-ship cruise companies may still be able to sail because they carry fewer than 100 passengers or do not use Canadian ports. Alaskan Dream Cruises, American Cruise Lines, Lindblad Expeditions and Uncruise Adventures all sail under the U.S. flag and mainly cruise itineraries in Alaska’s scenic Inside Passage, a protected waterway through offshore islands.

American, for instance, has three itineraries. The line “has been working closely with communities in Alaska and looks forward to safely resuming small-ship cruises this year,” said Charles B. Robertson, president and chief executive.


Uncruise has indicated it will have six or seven of its small ships sailing in Alaska this year. Each carries 22 to 86 passengers.

Travelers seeking to take a small-ship cruise would fly into southeast Alaska cities such as Juneau or Ketchikan.

Canada’s ruling also will affect fall color sailings in eastern Canada and New England.

The loss of cruise passenger income is devastating to Alaska’s economy. Juneau and Ketchikan usually are visited by more than a million tourists each year, nearly 95% of whom arrive by cruise ship.

The Canadian order isn’t the only thing blocking resumption of cruising.

Standing orders from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have delayed the relaunch of cruise operations in the United States for more than a year, with no clear end in sight.

Although a few foreign companies are now sailing in Asia, Australia or Europe, most lines have pushed back operating dates to summer or later.

CLIA members have agreed to set up new health protocols, most of which are based on CDC recommendations, to avoid the spread of COVID-19. Among them:

  • 100% testing of passengers and crew prior to embarkation.
  • Mandatory testing and screening for crew members.
  • Expanded medical facilities onboard to accommodate COVID-19.
  • Mask wearing and physical distancing measures.