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Alaska/Canada ports advocate for cruising's return

From upper left, clockwise: Mayor Andrew Cremata, HAL's Bill Fletcher, Vancouver's Peter Xotta, RCI's Josh Carroll, moderator Steve Hites
Tiny Skagway, Alaska, lost $160m in revenues, or 95% of its budget, in 2020 without cruise ships, while for cosmopolitan Vancouver, BC, the business has a 'profound impact on the economy.'

Both ports are actively engaged in preparing health safety protocols to, they hope, receive cruise visitors in the spring and want to advocate for the business in their communities.

'This is about survival'

'This is about survival for Skagway,' Borough Mayor Andrew Cremata told a Seatrade Cruise Virtual session on Alaska.

Peter Xotta, VP planning & operations, Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, said cruise visitors present a lower risk than independent travelers, and the port can help the industry share its message about the lines' health protocols with residents.

'How can port communities help the lines help us?' as Xotta put it. In Vancouver, which has made hefty investments to handle bigger ships at Canada Place, cruising has a profound economic impact, he said.

Lines have been reaching out to communities to ensure they'll be ready from health, safety and confidence standpoints.

That's key, since people are concerned about cruise ships — and rightly so, according to Cremata. Skagway has had zero cases of COVID-19. It's got no hospital, but the town prepared already back in February to establish a facility with quarantine rooms should those be needed.

Proposed COVID-19 testing facility for workers in Skagway

'We have to take a proactive role,' Cremata said. Skagway plans to contact Cruise Lines International Association to propose expanding the quarantine facility into a COVID-19 testing location so temporary workers, restaurant workers and others could get tested on a regular basis.

The cruise ships may provide a safe bubble by testing everybody, but if the communities don't take steps to make sure they're safe, there's a fundamental flaw in the system, the mayor noted.

Cremata thinks what Skagway aims to do could become a model for other communities.

'Our plan is to be 100% ready,' he said. 'Everyone knows the stakes.'

'If the requirements call for wearing 30 masks, I'm going to be wearing 30 masks,' Cremata quipped.

Steve Hites, president, Skagway Streetcar Co., who moderated the session, seconded that. The cruise business drives Alaska tourism, he noted. Efforts to try to get land-based visitors over the summer when ships were absent fizzled.

Important for lines to partner with communities

'We're very confident Alaska communities are taking [health safety] very seriously,' said Josh Carroll, VP destination development and deployment, Royal Caribbean Group. He added that his company's Healthy Sail Panel recommendations are 'just the starting point of a long journey' in the global efforts to live safely with COVID-19.

Royal Caribbean is sending its 'newest, best, most environmentally friendly hardware' to the region. 'It's important to partner with the communities to create a win-win long-term,' Carroll said.

And Bill Fletcher, senior director, destination marketing & engagement, Holland America Line, said 'No [other] cruise line has a longer, deeper relationship with a destination' than Holland America. Since Holland America Group owns and operates its own tour infrastructure in Alaska, that helps create a 'safe bubble,' he added.

Plus, before Alaska cruising resumes, the company will have the benefit of experience learned from its sister brands that are operating in Europe.

Strong demand for Alaska

There's likely to be strong demand for Alaska in future years, Fletcher added, since the cruise industry has to accommodate a million disappointed people who couldn't visit in 2020 on top of those who originally booked for 2021.

Seatrade Cruise Virtual conference sessions can still be viewed by registered delegates for the next few weeks.