Johanna Jainchill
Johanna Jainchill

The global cruise industry took one step forward and two steps back this weekend in its quest to resume sailings after the pandemic grounded fleets worldwide.

One ship, UnCruise Adventures' Wilderness Adventurer, on Saturday became the first cruise line to resume overnight cruising in the U.S. since cruise lines halted operations in March. The vessel departed Juneau with 37 passengers and 30 crew for a seven-day cruise on the line's Glacier Bay Adventure itinerary.

UnCruise celebrated the milestone on social media. "Normally there are 1.1 million cruise ship visitors to Juneau. Today the first 36 depart," UnCruise said in a Facebook post. In an accompanying video of CEO Dan Blanchard with the ship at the dock, he said, "For all of Juneau, all of Alaska, we celebrate with you."

But from two other ships, separated by 11 time zones, the news was not good. In Tahiti, a passenger on Paul Gauguin's first cruise for international visitors tested positive for Covid-19. In Norway, Hurtigruten said that 36 of the 158 crew on the Roald Amundsen had tested positive.

The Paul Gaugin returned to Papeete, Tahiti, and passengers and crew were quarantined onboard. Hurtigruten temporarily suspended all expedition sailings on three of its ships in response to the Covid-19 outbreak on the Roald Amundsen.

So while one cruise line and one state celebrated what they hope to be the beginning of the end of the drought on overnight cruising, the outbreaks are a reminder that the industry faces many hurdles and roadblocks to a widespread resumption of operations.

"We have not been good enough, and we have made mistakes," Daniel Skjeldam, CEO of Hurtigruten, said in a statement widely quoted in the European press about the outbreak, adding that "a preliminary evaluation shows a breakdown in several of our internal procedures."

For Dan Blanchard, speaking from Juneau Saturday, the news from Norway was sobering, but he was still certain of his line's ability to safely carry out the five additional sailings it has on the calendar.

"Even though the [Roald Amundsen] is a small ship, it's monumentally bigger than our boats, in both capacity and crew," he said. He also believes the precautions UnCruise is taking go beyond what other lines have in place. "Not only do we require testing from the state of Alaska, but we've had crew for over a month quarantined on the boat getting it ready."

"If we protect the crew we protect the guests and vice versa," he said.

What really sets UnCruise apart, he said, is the nature of its itineraries, which the line calls "adventure cruises."

Blanchard said that the ship isn't doing any port calls, and passengers are off the vessel for most of the day on excursions. "That's unique to us as a company, and it just works out that it's the right thing for today."

UnCruise vessels, he said, are "more of a floating basecamp. Even with Hurtigruten they are visiting small towns. It's hard to compare apples to apples."

But he acknowledged that nothing is risk-free.

"We realize there is definitely risk involved, and so do our passengers traveling with us," he said. "But everyone also realizes with 37 guests and 28 crew spaced out and crew not even in crew quarters  they are staying in guest quarters -- and being off the boat improves the odds greatly and may be the new norms in what has to happen until we get a vaccine."

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