Cruise lines plan a U.S. summer comeback - in Alaska

FILE - This May 30, 2018, file photo shows the Grand Princess cruise ship in Gastineau Channel in Juneau, Alaska. Several cruise lines said Wednesday, May 6, 2020, they are canceling sailings to Alaska this summer, citing travel and other restrictions linked to coronavirus concerns. Two of the companies, Princess Cruises and Holland America Line, had previously announced sharply reduced plans for voyages to and tours in Alaska. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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Three Carnival-owned cruise lines on Thursday said they are planning to resume sailing in Alaska this summer with fully vaccinated passengers, a prospect that would have seemed like an incredible long shot just months ago.

The announcement from Carnival comes as the cruise industry attempts a restart in the United States after shutting down in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.

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The Alaska plans still need approval from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the company is betting that will happen. Carnival is also working to lock in plans to sail ships from Miami and Galveston, Tex., in July.

"We are optimistic that we will be able to conclude our ongoing discussions with the CDC," said Roger Frizzell, chief communications officer for Carnival.

The three lines - Princess Cruises, Holland America Line and Carnival Cruise Line - said their first Alaska cruises from Seattle will be in late July and will stretch into September or October. Stops will include popular destinations such as Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan. All passengers must be at least two weeks past their final dose of an approved coronavirus vaccine, and safety protocols will be provided later. Crew vaccinations, according to the company, "will be in accordance with CDC guidelines."

The CDC said last month that ships can sail sooner if they attest that at least 98 percent of the crew on a ship will be vaccinated.

"We are excited to once again serve our guests from the U.S., and we express our deep gratitude to all national, state and local officials who have worked collaboratively with us, the CDC and our entire industry to make this possible," Arnold Donald, the chief executive of Carnival, said in a statement. "It is great news for cruising, for travelers ready to again explore the world and for all the communities in Alaska that depend on cruising and have suffered great hardships over the past year."

Earlier this year, cruise operators hoping to return to Alaska after the coronavirus canceled last summer's season had two strikes against them. The CDC still had not told cruise lines everything that would be required to sail again, though the process was expected to be lengthy.

And in February, the Canadian government said it would ban cruise ships from the country until early 2022. Because of a federal law called the Passenger Vessel Services Act, foreign-flagged vessels cannot transport passengers between U.S. ports unless they stop in a nearby foreign country - in this case, Canada.

Since then, the CDC has escalated its talks with the cruise industry, provided more information on requirements and changed some of those guidelines based on whether passengers and crew are vaccinated. The agency has said that if cruise lines act quickly, a July restart could be possible.

Crucially for Alaska visits, the House voted Thursday to allow a temporary waiver for the federal law requiring ships to visit a foreign port. The Senate approved the bill, called the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act, last week. Next it goes to President Biden for a signature.

"After missing the 2020 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Alaskans across the state have been feeling fear, anxiety, and uncertainty over whether or not their jobs - their livelihoods - could survive another cancelled cruise ship season," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in a statement. "For many, the advice was just to 'get through to 2022,' but for the delegation, that was simply not acceptable."

Other major cruise lines have not said what their plans are for Alaska, though Norwegian Cruise Line recently started selling voyages for this summer again, according to the Associated Press. Even if the largest cruise lines manage some kind of presence, they will have fewer ships than in a normal year for just a fraction of the time. So far this year, only very small ships that aren't subject to CDC restrictions have visited.

Still, even an abbreviated summer season is likely to be welcomed by businesses that rely on seasonal cruise visits for most of their business. In 2019, Alaska got about 60 percent of its summer tourists from cruise ships.

Chris Gray Faust, managing editor of the cruise news and review site Cruise Critic, visited Alaska on a small cruise in early April and said the tourism industry workers she spoke to felt insecure "and honestly, forgotten."

"When the ships left, their absence caused a ripple effect that went deep into many different businesses, impacting their day-to-day lives significantly," she said in an email.

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