Unlike big-ship lines, Alaskan Dream Cruises, a Sitka, AK-based line that operates 10 American-flagged vessels, will begin its 10th anniversary season of small-ship Alaska cruises in April. That's because it's American-flagged vessels aren't subject to the Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA) rules, nor are they impacted by Canada's recent ship ban.
Carrying less than 100 people, the line's vessels are also not subject to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention's "Framework for Conditional Sailing Order"—currently a stumbling block for big ship lines in their restart efforts as the CDC has yet to provide all details needed.
But while Alaskan Dream Cruises will operate a full schedule of 2021 Alaska voyages this year, Zakary Kirkpatrick, the line's corporate director of marketing and PR, also expressed the line’s strong support for a PVSA exemption for larger ships as well as efforts to sway Canada to allow big-ship technical stops.
The goal, he told reporters and travel advisors during a Friday briefing, is to avoid a devastating impact on Alaska's businesses, jobs and economy.
Saving the Big-Ship Cruise Season
Without changes in the PVSA requirements, “unfortunately, what this does is it blocks all large and mid-sized cruise lines and even some of the small ones from entering Alaska this year and that’s because U.S. federal law prohibits foreign-registered ships [sailing] between two American ports without calling in a foreign port in between,” emphasized Kirkpatrick.
“As a local Alaska company involved in several aspects of the tourism industry”—such as Allen Marine and Orca Point Lodge, among other offerings—“it’s really critical to us that we state our strong support of a temporary waiver to sections of the law that will allow foreign-flagged lines to sail to Alaska this summer,” Kirkpatrick said.
He believes it's impossible to overstate just how critical the entire cruise industry is to the economic health of Alaska and that loss of bigger ships could cause devastating losses in terms of retail sales, revenue and jobs and the municipal sales tax.
"It’s been really staggering” for businesses and municipalities in southeast Alaska due to the seasonality of this Alaska season, which is in general May to September," Kirkpatrick said. “What it’s done is it’s forced businesses to survive what they hoped was going to be 19 months until it opened up again in May."
That timeframe began at the conclusion of the Alaska season in September 2019, then stretched through the cancelled 2020 Alaska cruise season and was expected to end with this year's restart for the entire cruise industry. He continued: “But now, with this Canadian announcement, businesses are looking at having to go 31 months. It’s just been cataclysmic.” He said the company had been working with congressional officials on trying for an exemption for those big ship lines.
In addition, Kirkpatrick noted that “we support our government working with Canada on a safe way that these ships can just at least do technical stops in Canada. I wanted to get our strong support of that out.”
Travel Agent reported earlier today on a letter sent late last week to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from two U.S. Senators and a U.S. Congressman; they requested solutions to that issue and better cross-border cooperation.
Alaskan Dream Cruises’ vessels carry between 10 and 76 passengers, so, “we actually have never been under CDC 'No Sail Orders,' even in 2020,” Kirkpatrick stressed. "But for the compelling health and safety reasons in the early stages of the pandemic, we determined not to sail last year.”
He added, however, “we are really excited to sail this year.” Headquartered in Sitka, AK, Alaskan Dream Cruises is owned and operated by the Allen family, who are members of Alaska’s Tlingit native tribe. They’ve been showcasing the wildlife and sites of the Inside Passage for more than 50 years, first with marine operations and then in 2011, the launch of Alaskan Dream Cruises.
The line's 10-passenger Misty Fjord will kick off the 2021 Alaska season with two April sailings. Another larger vessel will begin sailing May 7 with other vessels following shortly after. Kruzof Explorer, shown below, is the newest addition to the line's fleet; it's a renovated former Bering Sea crab boat.
The line will comply with all local, state and federal health and safety mandates. “In addition, we’ve been heartened by the vaccine roll-outs currently underway,” Kirkpatrick said. On average, an Alaskan Dream Cruise passenger is more than 60 years of age, so he said many of those guests or potential guests expect to receive the vaccination in the coming months (prior to sailing) or have already received at least the first dose. Kirkpatrick expects that pace of vaccination to accelerate.
In Southeast Alaska, he believes the vaccination of local residents is cause for optimism: “Our vaccine roll-out has been robust and well-organized” with “vaccines distributed quickly and efficiently in the region.”
As of February 10, 24 percent of Southeast Alaska residents have received at least their first vaccine dose, per the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Alaska native tribes have received separate allocations.
During a recent phone call with tribal officials from Kake, AK, a native village and remote, small-ship port of call, Alaskan Dream Cruises learned “that they even want to do more with us this year,” according to Kirkpatrick. The village of 600 or so residents is 69 percent vaccinated with 100 more doses still to be administered.
A cultural/dance presentation by Kake tribal members for Alaskan Dream Cruises' guests going ashore.
Kirkpatrick credited local and state officials and the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink as “Alaska is faring really well when it comes to this vaccination roll-out. It’s really heartening to see.”
He described Alaskans as community-minded, and said that Allen Marine previously used one of its boats and crews to deliver vaccines to small, remote Alaskan communities.
“Flights to our ports of embarkation in Alaska are really easy,” he said, noting that Ketchikan, Juneau and Sitka are easy to fly to from Seattle. Once in Alaska, cruisers will embark and disembark from the company’s own privately owned marine facilities in several southeast Alaska communities. In addition, Fitzpatrick emphasized that his line’s small-ship itineraries in Alaska are involve many outdoor activities and are flexible, even under normal circumstances, so a captain can adjust the ship’s itinerary for wildlife spotting or weather conditions.
During the upcoming 2021 Alaska sailings, the line will adjust itineraries as needed, to divert based on any community concerns or COVID-19 developments ashore. “We’ll just go explore by kayak, skiff or on foot,” said Kirkpatrick.
As for onboard safety protocols for guests and crew, “we don’t know—like anyone—what federal and local health mandates will exist when cruises resume," he noted, adding that the line's COVID mitigation crew and staff training program has been approved by the State of Alaska.
“But again, it’s a fluid situation,” he said, noting that as things change, the line will adjust. Kirkpatrick also stressed that the line is in touch with the Alaska State Operations Center, the agency that will approve the plan for health/safety protocols and COVID-19 testing or other requirements.
Many protocols already in place will be implemented regardless of what the future holds, he said. They include a pre-sailing health questionnaire to mitigate any potential issues prior to the guest boarding. The line will adhere to state travel advisories, which currently include a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of departure that can be entered into the Alaska travel portal web site.
"We strongly recommend Alaskan Dream Cruises guests receive test results before leaving their homes and commencing travel to Alaska," Kirkpatrick told reporters. "Those who test positive for COVID-19 will be allowed to postpone to a later sailing date."
In addition to providing negative test results for the state’s purposes, Alaskan Dream Cruises will also require proof of the negative result, under the same criteria—a negative result from a test taken with 72 hours of cruise departure. That applies to all international or U.S. guests (including Alaska residents).
One factoid from Kirkpatrick? “Our company has unique knowledge of [testing and state entry requirements] because we actually have a state contract to conduct COVID screening at the airport” in Sitka.
If any guests test positive prior to boarding, they won’t be permitted to board the ship. When pressed as what the line would do to assist guests who fly to Alaska and then are denied boarding for a positive test, Kirkpatrick said the policies are evolving. He couldn’t provide details as yet.
Separately, Alaska Dream Cruises will have a designated employee who’s totally knowledgeable about evolving travel and testing requirements to serve as a liaison for guests and travel agents. Kirkpatrick said travel mandates can be confusing and they're constantly changing.
Chichagof Dream has outdoor decks for viewing spectacular scenery; this photo above was taken pre-pandemic so social distancing was not yet in place. // Photo by Susan J. Young
On its ships, the line will focus on constant sanitation, including disinfection of common areas, touch points and staterooms. It will also disinfect transportation vehicles. To ensure access to a large supply of hospital grade disinfection, the company is now manufacturing its own EPA-registered solution in Sitka. Also, the line will install more hand sanitation stations and conduct daily health and wellness checks that include guest temperature checks and symptom questionnaires.
“All self-serve food and beverage options will be eliminated, and we’ve equipped our vessels with sterilizing UV lights on the HVAC and vent systems,” Kirkpatrick told reporters, “and we know how effective masks are, so masks will be required [for all guests and crew] when occupying or transiting all public areas.”
Alaskan Dream Cruises is also considering the use of staggered times for both dining and educational presentations to allow for greater physical distancing.
In addition, the line's operations managers are working to secure PCR or antigen test kits for its boats, so it has the onboard ability to test crew or guests who become symptomatic. “We’re working feverishly to have these right now,” said Fitzpatrick, but “there are availability issues.” He added, however, that the line expects that to improve over the coming months and the line’s operations people are in constant contact to receive those.
When asked if vaccinations will be required for crew and guests, Fitzpatrick said it’s too soon to know, acknowledging that will depend on greater vaccine availability and government mandates. “We don’t a solid answer right now.” Yet, he’s hopeful that the vaccination process will be much further along by spring.
What if someone onboard an Alaskan Dream Cruises ship tests positive for COVID-19? Upon confirmation, they’d be quarantined in room, and, if in the vicinity, transported ashore in Sitka or Juneau to go to a local hotel for quarantine. “We won’t just be anchored out because we have private facilities [ashore for docking and disembarking guests] and that should give a measure of peace of mind.”
The company also owns another company with high-speed catamarans. “So, if we were not near a port to be able to disembark a guest like that, we have essentially these fast transport vessels that can,” Kirkpatrick said.
Cabins onboard where any “positive test” guests were staying would receive a deep disinfection. Plus, the line would do contact tracing.
The line is starting the season with many guests on the books for 2020 who took a Future Cruise Credit and just rebooked using that. “This won’t come as a surprise to anyone as we’ve all been in this pandemic, but there is pent-up demand for travel and there is demand for Alaska cruising.”
“The last week has seen an uptick in bookings, and we’re expected that to continue,” Kirkpatrick told reporters, adding that while the traditional Wave Season for Alaska bookings is typically January to March, this year's season is more likely to run from March through May.
Recently, the line reduced its required deposit, which, historically, was about $750 per person, but that’s been reduced to $49 per person. In 2019, 96 percent of Alaskan Dream Cruises' guests hailed from outside Alaska.
For its 10th anniversary year in 2021, the line will operate 11 different itineraries. Voyages will sail to Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness, Glacier Bay National Park, Orca Point and Fin Island Lodges, small fishing communities, Alaska native villages and top wildlife destinations. One new five-night itinerary will also offer a lower price point.
The line’s onboard ambience is best described as casual. All staterooms feature private bathrooms with showers and pillow-topped mattresses. Ships carry expeditionary craft (as shown in the photo above), such as DIBS, Zodiacs and kayaks.
“We’re preparing and we’re excited for the 2021 season and given the vaccination roll-outs that are happening, the proven effectiveness of PPE especially masks and myriad onboard mitigation efforts, we feel strongly that we can have a safe and successful Alaska season," Kirkpatrick said.
"Again, we reiterate our support of a Jones Act (commonly used interchangeably with the PVSA, although they do differ) exemption," as well as advocating that Canada allow technical big-ship calls," he emphasized. "You can’t overstate how vital it is to Alaska’s economy.”
He mentioned that the impact of a lack of those ships doesn't just affect cruise lines and tour operators, but also restaurants, retailers and even businesses such as paper print shops that often work with the tourism companies. Getting the big ships sailing again, according to Kirkpatrick, is of “significant importance.”
What’s different this year than last? In addition to many people likely to be vaccinated by their sailing date, health officials have now said that fully vaccinated guests don’t have to quarantine if exposed to someone who comes down with COVID-19. That means a cruise could continue even if a guest onboard tests positive as the fully vaccinated guests wouldn’t have to disembark.
Also, more big ship guests may be taking small ship voyages in Alaska this year. “We don’t say, ‘there is a better or worse way to see Alaska,” said Kirkpatrick. “There is no bad way to do it.” But he did say that guests accustomed only to sailing on big ships need to understand that on a small ship “onboard entertainment is going to be an educational experience" and that his line's intimate vessels don't have pools or casinos.
But “small-ship cruising has a distinct advantage, the flexibility of its itineraries, so if a group of orcas is spotted, “the captain can say, ‘let’s turn around’ and maybe even get the Zodiacs out.” In addition, small ships can go to remote, small ports of call that big ships can’t, such as the remote native village of Kake or the small fishing town of Pelican.
Kirkpatrick’s parting thoughts? “There is cause for optimism especially in this small ship environment, especially with the proven effectiveness of things like masks and myriad onboard measures; the interstate travel mandates; the roll-out of vaccinations which will accelerate into April…and we are excited to be celebrating our 10th season.”