Dunleavy to CDC: ‘Give us a chance’

  • National Park Service Ranger Roger Robinson talks with visitors at the NPS Talkeetna Ranger Station. With the cruise ship season in limbo, Alaska is planning a massive marketing push to encourage independent travelers to visit the state to make up for the usual million-plus tourists who arrive via cruise ship each year. (Photo/Courtesy/National Park Service)

The State of Alaska is pulling out all the stops in an effort to get cruise ships, and the people they bring, back to Alaska, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said April 9.

The governor insisted in a lengthy press conference from a hangar in Juneau that Alaska has handled the COVID-19 pandemic as well or better than all other states — a message he conveyed to both prospective visitors and Centers for Disease Control officials — and actions need to be taken now to facilitate some sort of cruise season yet this year.

The million-plus cruise passengers that arrived to Alaska via the Inside Passage accounted for more than half of the total visitors to the state in most pre-pandemic years. The prospect of a second summer without those visitors — and the money they spend — has generated strong words from the state’s politicians but little progress to-date towards a solution.

There was broad belief that Alaska’s cruise industry would resume this spring prior to a Feb. 4 announcement that Canadian officials would not be allowing large cruise ships in the country’s ports.

However, the Canadian decision upended cruise companies’ plans because the Passenger Vessel Services Act, an 1880s labor-protection law, requires foreign-flagged and built vessels to stop in another country on trips between U.S. ports.

Additionally, the CDC has been slow to lift its “No Sail Order” prohibiting large cruise sailings domestically. The public health agency released new guidelines for ship operators and port town authorities in an April 2 update to its Framework for Conditional Sailing Order but has stopped short of lifting the ban currently in place through Nov. 1.

Dunleavy said he wants CDC officials to recognize that while COVID-19 continues to persist “we have the tools to deal with it.”

Through much of the pandemic Alaska has had among the lowest COVID-19 death rates and highest vaccination rates in the country.

“Through proper planning and execution Alaska’s already demonstrated that we can bring people into the state and do it right. We didn’t have to shut down mining; we didn’t have to shut down the oil industry; we didn’t have to shut down fishing and we don’t have to shut down the cruise industry,” Dunleavy said.

“My message to the CDC, my message to Congress is: Look at what we’ve done.”

Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski said following the April 2 CDC announcement they were encouraged by agency projections that cruising could resume by mid-summer with swift implementation of the phased sailing plan.

Alaska’s congressional delegation was highly critical of Canadian officials following their decision to ban cruise ships for another summer but legislation to provide a waiver to the foreign stop requirement has yet to gain traction in Congress despite its implications to many other coastal states.

Holland America Vice President Ralph Samuels said during the governor’s briefing that if immediately given the clearance to operate, most cruise companies could be ready to sail by early July as a couple months of lead time is needed to hire and retrain crews and prepare the massive vessels.

“You’ve got a lot of hoops to jump through,” Samuels said.

Sullivan introduced legislation to revoke the No Sail Order April 13 that would also require the CDC to give mitigation guidance to cruise companies in advance of sailings. Florida Republican Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio signed on as co-sponsors to Sullivan’s bill.

Sullivan has had direct conversations with Canadian Transport Minister Omar Alghabra and Canadian Ambassador David MacNaughton about lifting the ban, according to his staff. He has also investigated the prospect of an administrative waiver with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

Dunleavy said he believes the CDC should be offering advice to industry but not implementing wholesale restrictions on industry activity. An announcement by the CDC permitting cruise sailings could have provided Congress further impetus to act as well, the governor suggested.

“This is an economic death-grapple we’re in with industries. (The CDC) is focused on health, that’s a good thing, but we’ve done this better than almost anywhere else and we should be given the opportunity and the respect that we in Alaska know what to do with this,” Dunleavy said.

The state’s efforts to receive clearance from the CDC could include litigation, he added.

The most recent CDC order directs cruise companies to discuss, among other things, what they would do in the event of COVID-19 on a cruise ship with port town authorities.

“We’ve obviously spent a lot of time on that exact scenario,” Samuels said.

Concurrently state tourism officials are working on a nationwide marketing campaign to regain the momentum the industry had prior to 2020, Dunleavy said as well.

“There won’t be a person across the country that won’t know about Alaska when we’re done with this,” he said, later adding, “Not only is this the place to come because it’s spectacular and has great people but it’s the safest place in the country.”

While the sailing forecast isn’t bright, officials at Alaska’s major airports have reported expectations that summer passenger capacity volumes will quickly rebound to record pre-pandemic levels — and possibly higher — this year.

Finally, Dunleavy indicated several times that administration officials are also preparing a tourism-targeted aid package to assist visitor industry businesses, particularly if a second cruise season is lost. The governor is expected to unveil it in the coming week.

The state’s broader leisure and hospitality industry lost nearly 15,000 jobs at the normal peak of the summer season last year according to Labor Department data and industry leaders fear another year without large cruise ships could force many businesses that had been temporarily shuttered to close for good, particularly in Southeast.

The governments in cruise port towns have taken major revenue hits as well. Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon said each year without cruise ships costs the city roughly $26 million in lost tax revenue and the ancillary activity that’s lost is felt by everyone.

“You’d be hard pressed to find a business in town that’s not impacted by cruise tourism,” Weldon said.

04/14/2021 - 9:55am