Cruises from Seattle to Alaska are set to return this summer after federal lawmakers cleared the way for sailings that have been on hold since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
The move signals the return of a significant slice of downtown Seattle’s economy, where some waterfront businesses plan staffing around the cruise schedule. But significant questions remain about exact safety protocols the cruise lines will enforce.
Proof of vaccination will be required, the companies said Thursday. Decisions about masks, social distancing and precise quarantine procedures are still to come.
Cruise ships became early emblems of the pandemic when outbreaks aboard ships last year stranded crews and passengers on board for weeks. This spring, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been working on guidelines to allow cruise ships to resume operations.
For Seattle-Alaska sailings, the Port of Seattle will craft agreements with the cruise companies outlining safety protocols, including arrangements in the event of an outbreak on board “so it’s not a burden on the local government and community resources,” said Stephanie Jones Stebbins, the Port of Seattle’s maritime director.
The resumption of sailing is made possible by the recent passage of the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act, which will temporarily allow cruise lines to bypass Canada.
Many large cruise lines’ ships are registered outside the United States, and because of that are typically required to stop at a foreign port when traveling between two U.S. ports. (Cruise critics say the companies register outside the country to avoid taxes, labor laws and environmental regulations.) With Canada closed to cruise ships, that rule stood in the way of Seattle-to-Alaska trips.
After passage in the U.S. Senate last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the fix Thursday. The news set off a string of cruise lines announcing their plans to resume sailing to Alaska.
Princess Cruises, Holland America Line and Carnival Cruise Line said Thursday they would resume cruising to Alaska for a partial season starting in July for passengers who have proof of vaccination.
- Princess Cruises will sail seven-day cruises from July 25 through Sept. 26. Sales will begin on May 21.
- Holland America Line will resume seven-day cruises to depart on Saturdays from July 24 through Oct. 2.
- Carnival will depart weekly from July 27 to Sept. 14. Most trips will be seven-day cruises, with one eight-day trip that has one additional stop.
Norwegian Cruise Line has also started selling tickets for August sailings from Seattle to Alaska, The Associated Press reported Wednesday.
A spokesperson for Royal Caribbean Group, which includes Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises and Silversea, said the company would release more details soon, but “we couldn’t be more excited to sail in Alaska this summer.”
The return of cruises marks a sea change after a year of pandemic shutdowns.
“It’s a really important step toward the economic recovery of our region. So many people’s livelihoods depend on tourism and the cruise business,” said the Port’s Jones Stebbins.
“Awesome!” exclaimed Erin Andrews when informed of the announcement Thursday.
Andrews, who owns indi chocolate in Pike Place Market, said cruise passengers who stop in to shop or take chocolate classes are “really significant to our business.”
“We definitely felt the impact of not having the cruises come through,” she said. “It was part of the impact of COVID.”
Not everyone will welcome the return. Cruises have been a flashpoint for environmental concerns in Seattle.
“We realize we need to reduce our use of fossil fuels and need to do so quickly. After a break like we’ve had, to jump back into a leisure activity that is so fossil-fuel intensive… does seem like going backwards,” said Stacy Oaks, a member of Seattle Cruise Control, a coalition opposing a new cruise terminal in Pioneer Square. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get to use this pause to think about how we could have more responsible tourism.”
The Port has pointed to its plan to provide cruise ships with shore power to allow them to turn off diesel engines at the dock. The new terminal was delayed last year when the pandemic took a bit out of the Port’s budget.
The federal bill allowing cruise lines to bypass foreign ports, Oaks said, “doesn’t seem like it benefits people as much as cruise companies.”
The cruise lines did not immediately provide details of their hiring plans for the new season, which will be shorter than a typical summer cruise season in Seattle.
Beyond requiring passengers to be fully vaccinated, the companies are still working through final coronavirus protocols with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Holland America Line President Gus Antorcha.
“My hope is it will be very close to what people remember in terms of their experience on board,” Antorcha said.
Crew working aboard Holland America ships will be required to be vaccinated, he said.
Carnival Corp., which owns Princess, Holland and Carnival, said it would provide customers “advanced, detailed information about protocols in place at the time of departure, as full details continue to be updated in collaboration with medical and science experts and government authorities.”