The first major cruise ship to visit Alaska since 2019 arrived in Ketchikan early in the morning of July 9. The federally mandated test trip marks the symbolic start of the Alaska cruise season.
The 965-foot cruise ship circled Pennock Island and appeared from Ketchikan shortly after 6 a.m. Skidder Andy Jackson watched from his car at the back of one of Ketchikan’s berths.
âI just thought it’s great to see that again. Because we haven’t seen this sinceâ¦ âJackson said before a pause. It’s been a very long time, 21 months. 640 odd days. A year and three quarters, if you will.
There have been a number of small cruise ships with around 100 passengers cruising around the Inside Passage since the spring, and independent tourists have crowded flights to and from Southeast Alaska this summer. But the return of the first large ship is a milestone, says Patti Mackey, head of the visitors’ bureau.
“Looks like things are starting to look a little more normal for Ketchikan,” she said.
The Cape Fox Dancers greeted passengers with traditional Tlingit dances and songs.
But instead of thousands of visitors from around the world, the first ship only brought in a few hundred cruise line employees.
John Chambers was the first to disembark – he is one of some 300 fully vaccinated Royal Caribbean employees who arrived on the Serenade. They don’t get paid, but he says that’s not the issue.
âI have worked for the cruise line for 15 years now. And this is my fourth time in Ketchikan. I was really excited to be the first to come back, and I became the first to come back, âChambers said.
Chambers’ job was to kick back, relax and enjoy the ride while the roughly 800 crew members tested the ship’s anti-COVID protocols. Royal Caribbean vice president of government relations Russell Benford said federal health inspectors were on board, making sure the ship’s procedures were up to scratch.
âWe actually have CDC observers on the ship, so they’re going to be observing all the protocols from start to finish,â Benford explained. “And if we do well and they give us the green light, then the ship can resume service with paying passengers.”
He says Royal Caribbean ships will start the season at reduced capacity.
âWe will start at around 40% to 50% and then we will increase our capacity over time until we return to all of our vessels in service and to 100% capacity in the next few months,â he said. -he declares. .
The simulated trip is an optional step for cruise passengers – they can bypass the test cruise requirement by requiring 95% of passengers to be vaccinated. Benford says Royal Caribbean is opting for the test cruise because many of its passengers are children under 12 and not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Its sister line Celebrity skips a test cruise – Benford says this line is aimed primarily at adults.
Dignitaries, industry figures and local officials marked the occasion with a catered reception with speeches and music, both from Ketchikan’s New Path Dancers and a jazz trio.
The arrival of the Serenade is a symbol – with only a few hundred passengers on this test cruise, it doesn’t bring much more than some of the smaller cruise ships. But Senator Lisa Murkowski says it sends a powerful message.
“It feels good to see a big ship come back, because we know that today’s visit is just the start,” said Murkowski. âIt’s going to be a short season, but we’re going to have a season. “
Lieutenant Governor Kevin Meyer put it this way:
âIt’s a celebration. Cruise ships are back, baby, âhe said.
Getting the ships back to Alaska was no small task. Two major hurdles have stood in the way of a 2021 season – restrictions by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the closure of ports in Canada. But in April and May, the CDC released rules for ships to resume sailing, and the Alaska Congressional delegation passed a bill waiving the federal requirement for ships to call at overseas on Alaska cruises. And now the cruises are about to return.
But it’s not all sun and roses from here. The 2021 cruise season will only bring in a fraction of the 1.3 million passengers who visited Southeast Alaska in 2019. And that was on the mind of independent tour operator Steve McDonald.
âThere is no season,â he said. âI mean, we’re just going to meet a few ships. But hey, it’s always good to see people and go out and get ready. Hopefully the people of town put a few bucks in their pockets and things go well. “
He and other tourism business owners say they think they will struggle until at least 2022. Meyer, the lieutenant governor, says the state is preparing a grant program for companies that will need additional help to make it through next year.