Haines braces for another summer without cruise ships
February 11, 2021
On Feb. 4, Canada extended a ban on cruise ships carrying more than 100 passengers for another year.
“The scary part is, if this truly does cancel the season, the time between seeing cruise ships in Southeast will be thirty-two months,” tourism director Steven Auch said.
The cruise-ship ban, which has been in place since mid-March 2020, had been set to expire at the end of February. In a press release, Canadian officials cited a desire to protect vulnerable populations and prevent the healthcare system from being overwhelmed as factors in the decision. They said the Minister of Transport has the ability to rescind the order if the COVID-19 pandemic shows sufficient signs of improving.
“It certainly isn’t fun news to receive, but it’s not a surprise that they extended it,” Auch said. “All the stuff that we’ve been hearing from Canada is they’re following (COVID-19 case) numbers, and until things start showing progress in the right direction, they have no plans to open borders.”
Auch said he’s waiting to hear official confirmation from the major cruise lines that they’re cancelling 2021 sailings to Alaska.
“Either the cruise lines will have to cancel all the cruises they have scheduled, or they will have to make some kind of play,” he said, referencing the U.S. Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886, the reason a Canadian cruise-ship ban affects Alaska. Due to a provision in the act, ships flying international flags can’t sail directly between U.S. ports. They must stop in a foreign port. Vancouver is a common stop for cruise ships making their way to Alaska.
Cruise ships that fly American flags are exempt from the requirement, so at present, Haines could still receive visits from a handful of small, U.S.-based cruise lines including UnCruise Adventures, Lindblad Expeditions, Alaskan Dream Cruises and American Cruise Lines. The companies have said as recently as early February that they plan to operate this summer.
Like Auch, local business owners described news of the Canadian cruise ship ban’s extension as an unsurprising economic blow.
“I’ve been kind of thinking that the big ships weren’t going to come,” Rainbow Glacier Adventures LLC owner Joe Ordonez said. “This certainly is not good news.”
Ordonez estimates the large cruise ships that pass through Canada make up between 70% and 80% of his business in a normal year. He said he’s still doing the math to determine whether it makes sense to operate in 2021. He’s a tour provider for American Cruise Lines, which could still potentially sail to Alaska this year.
“The question is whether it’s worth it, and I don’t know the answer to that just yet,” Ordonez said. He said the cruise line, which normally has roughly 150 passengers per vessel, plans to operate at 75% capacity.
Ordonez said if he decides not to operate, this will be the second year in a row without revenue from the business, but he said he thinks his business will survive until 2022 with the help of government programs like the PPP and CARES Act-funded grants. “We’re scrappy,” he said.
The loss of large cruise ships will be felt throughout the Haines economy, not just in the tourism industry.
“A lot of our business is dependent on Canadian tourists and cruise ships,” Pioneer Bar and Bamboo Room Restaurant owner Christy Tengs Fowler said. She said it’s likely her business will continue to operate with reduced hours until cruise ships return.
“I can’t afford to pay people if we don’t have the customers,” she said.
Another year of reduced summer tourism will also have an impact on the Haines Borough’s budget. During the last budget cycle, the assembly made cuts to the Mosquito Lake Community Center, Haines Sheldon Museum, Haines Economic Development Corporation, and pool and library in anticipation of reduced sales tax revenue.
Another summer without tourists is going to be challenging come budget time, according to interim borough manager Alekka Fullerton. “The budget already was going to be tight without having CARES Act funds to fill in gaps. It’s going to be awful,” she said.
Sales tax revenue is down by $122,000 for the first half of the current fiscal year, which began on July 1, according to a recent borough report. Fullerton said she expects 2021 revenue will follow a similar trend if the large cruise ships don’t come.
The U.S.-Canada border, another source of summer tourism, has been closed to nonessential travel since March 2020, and will remain closed until at least Feb. 21.
Auch said based on the extension of the cruise-ship ban, he doubts the border will open this summer. “I think (the cruise ship ban) is a strong indicator of the direction Canada is leaning.”
A task force formed by the Wilson Center, a non-partisan policy forum that tackles global issues, is studying how and when to lift the U.S.-Canada closure, and expects to publish findings in March.