Shortly after the U.S. Senate unanimously passed legislation on May 13 to temporarily exempt large cruise ships sailing in Alaska from compliance with the Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA), Norwegian Cruise Line opened the books on Norwegian Bliss Alaska sailings for August.
This week, Princess Cruises and Holland America Line followed suit, scheduling Alaska cruises from Seattle as their first U.S. cruise departures, launching in late July.
These signs of confidence would not have been expected even a month ago, when the 2021 Alaska big-ship cruise season was all but written off. The PVSA requires foreign-flagged ships to stop at a foreign port when sailing between two U.S. destinations, and with Canadian ports banning cruise calls through February, there appeared to be no practical alternative.
The House unanimously passed the bill Thursday, and given the bipartisan support already shown, President Biden is expected to sign it.
While the legislation would remove one obstacle, Alaska would, for the time being, still find itself in the same situation as every other domestic cruise market: It will still be handcuffed and in limbo until the CDC lifts its ban on large cruise ship sailing.
But even on that front, the industry sees signs of hope.
"We remain optimistic that by working with the CDC and local port and government authorities in the destinations we visit that we will be able to resume safe cruising in the U.S. this summer," Norwegian said in a statement about putting the Bliss back on its schedule.
The CDC and cruise lines are, by most accounts, currently engaged and communicating in a way not seen during much of the cruise shutdown that began in March 2020.
"We are [communicating] again," Carnival Cruise Line president Christine Duffy told "NBC Nightly News" anchor Lester Holt. "For a while we weren't, and we respect that. Obviously, at the beginning, the focus was on getting vaccines in arms, but they've come back to the table with us ... to get clear on what guidelines and protocols are going to be required for us to sail again from U.S. ports."
Over a four-day period this month, the CDC released more updates to its cruise operations manual than it had since first implementing the Conditional Sailing Order in October 2020. It has finally taken into account the pace and progress of Covid-19 vaccinations: Until April, the only reference to them in the order was a comment saying none were approved in the U.S. This month, the CDC relaxed mask-wearing and testing protocols for vaccinated passengers, saying they should be able to wander freely in ports of call.
In another positive sign for the industry, a judge on May 18 ordered Florida and the CDC into mediation to resolve Florida's April 8 lawsuit to overturn the cruise ban. The suit argues that the ban had "directly harmed the state of Florida, its citizens and their families." Alaska and Texas had joined the suit. A mediator was appointed and instructed to begin meeting with the parties before June 1.
Given that many legal experts had said that the case was likely to be thrown out, mediation was seen as positive for the states.
Challenges to launching season
Cruise-dependent destinations in the state have put Plan B in motion, and independent travelers are in their sights.
A lot still has to happen for cruises to resume this summer, and the clock is ticking: Alaska has only a five-month cruise season, ending in September.
Charlie Ball, executive vice president of land operations for Holland America Group, which oversees Holland America and Princess Cruises, said that while the company is "optimistic that we can still operate some portion of our Alaska season ... time is running short to preserve enough of a season to make it viable for our partners to invest in their startup. So we hope all issues can be resolved quickly."
With that in mind, many travel advisors are not ready to recommend big-ship Alaska bookings to their clients just yet.
Dream Vacations franchise owner Gary Smith said that although he and his agency are "thrilled" about the progress being made, he's not sure it will translate into a big-ship Alaska season even if it is enacted and the CDC enables cruising by July.
"So many ships have been redeployed," he said, adding that cruise lines are not even launching ships until August in places that are not bound by CDC restrictions. "Will they even be able to get back up and running in time for that?"
Alaskan businesses must still grapple with whether or not to open this year, given that for many, a short cruise season won't make sense because opening costs are so high.
"Getting ready for a late season has significant challenges, especially since we have no idea what we are getting ready for," said Skagway mayor Andrew Cremata. "We don't know how many vessels, how many passengers or how many visits. The municipality is ready, but business owners are left wondering how to proceed.
"However, there are a number of businesses already open, and we can accommodate what I'm guessing may be coming our way," he added. "We are starting to get really good at pivoting toward the unexpected."