Cruise lines are preparing for a potential record Alaska season in 2022

  • The cruise ship Norweigan Encore leaves the Port of Juneau on Oct. 13, 2021. The Encore was sailing through Southeast Alaska on an unusual late-season cruise. (James Brooks / ADN)

Cruise companies have scheduled their ships for a record-breaking summer in Alaska, but it’s a long way between here and there.

Royal Caribbean Vice President of Destination Development Joshua Carroll said the major cruise line is taking more bookings now than at the same time in 2019, adding that demand for Alaska cruises has been “a standout in our bookings,” even as the most recent wave of COVID-19 cases curbed passenger demand on other sailings.

“As Royal Caribbean and as an industry, we have more ships deployed to Alaska than ever before,” Carroll said during a Feb. 8 videoconference with reporters highlighting a tourism-focused business partnership between Alaska Native corporations Doyon Ltd. and Huna Totem Corp.

Industrywide, cruise operators have scheduled sailings with the capacity to carry 1.57 million passengers to Alaska in 2022, according to figures compiled by Juneau-based economics firm Rain Coast Data.

Most years cruise companies use the long lead time between bookings and sailings to optimize their schedules; they rarely sail with ships that aren’t full or nearly so. That means 2022 could blow away Alaska’s previous cruise season record in 2019 of approximately 1.3 million visitors, just two years after no large ships visited the state.

Slightly more than 100,000 people cruised to Alaska in the latter half of last summer.

Alaska Railroad Corp. spokesman Tim Sullivan wrote via email that passenger bookings are “tracking well above 2019″ so far and railroad leaders are planning for a full schedule and full seating after significant reductions the past two summers. Much of the railroad’s passenger business is derived from the rail cars owned by cruise companies that the state-owned railroad pulls on a contractual basis.

However, Rain Coast director Meilani Schijvens and other industry observers noted the ongoing uncertainties of the pandemic mean the preseason capacity figure likely won’t be as reliable as in years past.

“We just don’t know if there’s going to be a new variant coming down the line,” said Schijvens.

Robert Venables, executive director of the regional development nonprofit Southeast Conference, said he’s approaching the 2022 cruise season with the view that “anything north of a million is a fantastic year.”

“Realistically, my personal thought is that we’ll still see a softer spring that will grow to a summer peak,” Venables said. “We don’t see a reverse, 100% on. It’s going to be a glide path and I think that’s what we’re seeing in other parts of the world.”

Potential complications also still could come from federal health officials and their counterparts in Canada, as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still working to finalize its detailed sailing guidelines for the industry after the agency’s conditional sail order that the ships operated under last year expired in January.

The first Alaska-bound sailings are scheduled for late April.

The Canadian government officially ended its two-year ban on cruise ships in November, but COVID-19 mitigation and response protocols for voyages this year haven’t been set.

Additionally, the congressional waiver secured last year by Alaska’s congressional delegation to the Passenger Vessel Services Act — the 19th century law that requires foreign-flagged vessels to make a foreign stop when traveling between U.S. ports — has also expired. To that end, Alaska Republican leaders Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young both have legislation in Congress to permanently exempt the state from the PVSA and Murkowski is also working on a stop-gap waiver for 2022 if need be.

The “cross-Gulf” sailings that carry upward of 400,000 passengers to Southcentral ports, and often subsequent railroad and bus tours to Interior Alaska, have historically started in British Columbia ports, as well, to make the longer voyages fit tight sailing schedules.

Cruise Lines International Association Alaska spokeswoman Renée Limoge Reeve wrote in an email that Alaska remains a “bucket-list” destination for many travelers but also highlighted that there are still numerous variables that could dampen lofty expectations for the upcoming cruise season.

“In 2020, prior to COVID, we anticipated 1.4 million cruise visitors to the state. Unfortunately, the omicron surge and other factors have impacted our wave season and the entire travel sector, but we anticipate bookings for this year will continue to ramp up and expect to have a strong 2022 season here in Alaska,” Limoge Reeve wrote.

However, while acknowledging virus protocols will probably impact the season to some degree, Carroll said the demand is there. Royal Caribbean’s protocols call for some cabins on the ships to be kept vacant, but families and larger groups booked elsewhere on its ships currently put Royal Caribbean at 100% capacity for its Alaska sailings based on two people per cabin, according to Carroll.

“We can absolutely fill our ships,” he said. “Guests want to be (in Alaska).”

Rain Coast Data’s Schijvens said that she is bullish bout the final visitor tally in spite of the unknowns, adding that she’s also slightly concerned about the ability of shoreside support service providers in Alaska port communities to handle a major influx of visitors after summers with few cruise ships, and amid worker shortages nationwide.

Regardless of how many people ultimately cruise to Alaska in 2022, Venables said he believes the communities are ready and eager for more visitors again.

“Everybody has upped their game and they’re as prepared as they can be, and they’re ready to welcome people back,” Venables said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached [email protected].

Updated: 
02/15/2022 - 11:34am