Governor removes major obstacle for cruise ships coming to Southeast
June 4, 2020
Beginning June 6, travelers entering Alaska can opt out of the state's 14-day quarantine if they consent to be tested for COVID-19. The policy, announced by Gov. Mike Dunleavy at a May 29 press conference, increases the likelihood of Haines receiving port calls from small cruise ships this summer.
At a May 26 Haines Borough Assembly meeting, tourism director Steven Auch said he'd been approached by small cruise ship company American Cruise Lines about the potential for port calls this summer. The company's first visit is scheduled for June 17.
At Auch's recommendation, assembly members voted unanimously to have borough staff participate in a working group organized by the Alaska Municipal League with the aim of facilitating a dialogue between small cruise lines and coastal communities to create regional guidelines for the industry.
The goal is to balance economics with the need to protect public health, Alaska Municipal League executive director Nils Andreassen said.
At a Tourism Advisory Board (TAB) meeting last week, Auch said he's been reaching out to tour operators and businesses in town to try to gauge their interest in receiving cruise ship passengers this year. He said he's been getting mixed responses.
Auch said in general, businesses that are already open have had more interest than those currently closed.
"A few small cruise ships would be a big help," said Alaska Rod's owner Rhonda Hinson, who co-owns the business with her husband. Their business has been open this spring, but earnings are down 92% from this time last year.
Like many small business owners in Haines, their profits fluctuate seasonally. They count on the summer tourism months to get them through the winter.
"We are currently facing a year without a busy season. Survival is in question," Hinson said. She estimated that in a normal year roughly a third of their revenue comes from cruise ship passengers and another third comes from Canadian highway traffic. The Canadian border closure was recently extended until at least June 21.
Hinson said she and her husband trust small cruise ship companies to effectively manage safety risks associated with the pandemic as it is in a companies' financial best interest to do so.
"They are small ships that cater to customer service and customer safety... they cannot afford to have anyone get sick," Hinson said.
When it comes to weighing safety concerns versus the potential for economic income, Hinson said people should be able to make their own choices.
"People who are at high risk need to be able to make the choices that will keep them safe. The rest of us need to be able to help them-but the healthy must be able to work and help economically for the community to be able to survive," Hinson said. "We cannot allow the fear that has shut down our country to control our lives and all that we have."
Others in the community are more hesitant to open to cruise ships.
The Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium center in Haines said while it commends the community for the work it has done to keep case numbers at zero, cruise ships could present a heightened risk.
"We recommend following both (Centers for Disease Control) and State of Alaska guidance on social distancing, masking and proper hygiene to stop the coronavirus spread," health center medical director Lylith Widmer said. "There are concerns with potential cruise ships docking in Haines because these protective measures are most likely hard to accomplish in tight quarters."
Widmer said the clinic will continue to work with the Haines Emergency Operations Center "to develop safety protocols if necessary."
For tour operators, a significant concern is whether opening will be economically viable with fewer clients.
Since the pandemic began, roughly 90% of cruise ships have cancelled port calls to Haines. The only cruise ships still on the schedule for 2020 are smaller ships, under 1,000 passengers. And any ships that do come would likely operate at reduced capacity.
Start-up costs for the season are considerable, Rainbow Glacier Adventures LLC owner Joe Ordonez said.
"It's not like you just flip a switch, and a business like ours just goes. There're a bunch of things that have to happen first, and they cost money," Ordonez said.
Opening for the season involves paid, multi-day trainings for staff; starting vehicle and liability insurance; and paying for borough and state permits. Those costs are usually offset by a revenue stream spread throughout the summer season.
Rainbow Glacier Adventures has a relationship with American Cruise Lines-Rainbow Glacier's walking tour is one of two tours included for all ship passengers. The other tour included for all passengers is run by Alaska Nature Tours.
Alaska Nature Tours owner Dan Egolf declined to comment on the potential for American Cruise Lines sailings.
Ordonez said small ships represent a limited portion of his business' income compared to larger cruise ships and passengers brought over from Skagway on the fast ferry.
"So the big question from a financial business sort of view is, 'Is it worth it? Can you make money at it?' If not, as a business person, it doesn't make sense," Ordonez said.
Ordonez said he doesn't think tours involving vehicles will pencil out this year. If he runs his 14-passenger vans at 50% capacity, that doesn't leave room for many clients. He's also concerned about health risks.
"I'm very leery of putting anyone in our vehicles. I just don't feel like there's enough knowledge out there about the level of risk I'd be asking my employees to take on to feel that it's worth it for something that really is financially iffy at best."
Ordonez said the only tour he could potentially see working is a walking tour for which a guide collects clients at the cruise ship dock and escorts them into town. Ordonez said the tour would allow for social distancing and would have a lower start-up cost because it doesn't involve vehicles.
For smaller tour businesses, it may be more economically feasible to start up this season.
At last week's TAB meeting, Haines Rafting Company owner Andy Hedden said it's easier for small businesses owned and operated by the same people to turn the lights on, and in Hedden's case, he's already paid insurance for the season.
However, the potential to make money this year is still in question.
"I don't know that anyone's chomping at the bit to take three people hiking," Hedden said.
In addition to questions of economics, tour operators are also mindful of the health and safety of the Haines community.
"I would love to operate in any capacity that is legitimate, but with the community's support and approval," Hedden said. "If the community is unanimously opposed to it, who wants to be that guy?"
Ordonez said he would only consider offering a tour with the backing of the community.
"I'm in no way encouraging (cruise ships) to come," Ordonez said. He said that's a decision for the community.
If cruise ships do end up coming to Haines, Ordonez said he would be interested in "continuing to explore the walking tour as some kind of activity." However, he said this outcome is unlikely.
"I'm putting a limited amount of time into the what ifs because, so far, everyone has done the same thing," Ordonez said. Cruise ship companies have pushed the start of the season further and further until, one by one, they've all cancelled.
The same day Dunleavy announced Alaska's new quarantine policy, Canada announced it was extending its cruise ship ban through the end of October. Due to a provision in the U.S. Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886, extension of this closure will prevent larger ships from docking in Haines until Canada lifts its ban.
In the wake of Canada's announcement, companies including Disney and Royal Caribbean cancelled their remaining Alaska cruises this season.
The extension of Canada's port closure won't impact Haines' cruise ship dockings as all large ships had already cancelled for 2020, but it will impact a number of sailings scheduled for Skagway in late summer. This means fewer potential visitors to Haines on the fast ferry.
American Cruise Lines continues to express interest in bringing the 175-passenger American Constellation to Haines, operating at 75% capacity.
American Cruise Lines vice president of hotel operations Paul Taiclet said the company is working with AML and port towns to tailor health and safety protocol to meet the needs of each community.
"We look forward to our continued communication with the communities throughout Southeast Alaska and hope to revive a portion of the economy supported by the small ship cruise industry this summer," Taiclet said.
At the May 26 assembly meeting, members tied the end of Haines' 14-day quarantine recommendation to the end of the state's quarantine policy.
"I suppose the Haines recommendation is still in place since the state did not end the 14-day quarantine," borough clerk and interim manager Alekka Fullerton said.
The Haines measure is a suggestion rather than a requirement, so it wouldn't prevent cruise ships from coming to town. However, while the recommendation remains in place, cruise ship passengers in Haines would ostensibly be in violation of the community's wishes.
Fullerton said the community needs to discuss the issue further.
Other Southeast communities will need to sign on as well before Haines can welcome cruise ships.
If Haines decides it wants cruise ships to come this summer but all the other ports on the itinerary say, "no," that would present a problem, Auch said. Cruise lines would be hard pressed to come up with an entirely new itinerary on such short notice.
This is why communities have been working together under AML's umbrella, Auch said.
And then there's the question of whether passengers will want to board cruise ships at all this summer.
Auch said he's heard from several cruise lines that they are still booked full. "There are still lots of people that want to cruise," he said.
Fullerton said the borough will hold a town hall meeting June 10 at 6 p.m. via Zoom to discuss the community's feelings about cruise ship visits this year.