UnCruise Adventures' CEO Dan Blanchard: "Alaska Here We Come"

Alaska, here we come,” Captain Dan Blanchard, owner and CEO, of small-ship UnCruise Adventures, told reporters during a Zoom press briefing Friday, as the line plans to begin sailing in the 49th state on May 16, 2021. “I can tell you that UnCruise Adventures will be back there again.”

It's the line's 25th year sailing in its home state of Alaska. "This season, we have plans for six small ships with one in reserve in case the market goes back to a point where we can activate it,” he said.

Blanchard also outlined a new guest promotion for those guests whose 2021 big-ship Alaska cruise may have been cancelled this summer due to the Transport Canada decision last week. That order banned ships of more than 100 passengers from sailing within Canadian waters through February 28, 2022.

Guests who can show proof of a cancelled Alaska sailing on one of those impacted vessels will receive a $500 per cabin savings, and along with the line’s current savings of $600 savings—bringing the value up to $1,100—for a new booking on UnCruise for a new 2021 sailing.

“We feel that if we can help the travel agency community for giving offers for guests that they may have booked on big ships and help us succeed and help other small-ship companies under U.S. flag succeed, then that’s a benefit too for everyone," according to Blanchard. 

Devastating for Alaska

That said, Blanchard said he was “deeply saddened” in discussing that Transport Canada decision and the the impact it's now having on "my friends that work in the large ship, big ship, foreign ship operations.”

Close to tears at one point, he acknowledged to reporters how much of a negative impact that Transport Canada decision also will have on Alaska tourism. “While I am happy that we will be able to operate in Alaska, I will tell you that I am just shook to my core.”

Telling reporters that “I’m definitely saddened by the Alaska businesses that are out there that are definitely going to be deeply hurt by this,” Blanchard also said, “and, I’m deeply saddened for the travel agency community…We’re just getting back up on our feet and we get a big ‘whammo.’”

The Jones Act 

So, why can’t big cruise ships simply bypass Victoria or Vancouver and sail from Seattle to Alaska or within Alaska. On the big-ship side, most major cruise lines, including Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, Norwegian Cruise Line, MSC Cruises and other contemporary lines, as well as most premium and luxury lines are foreign-flagged. Thus, the U.S. Passenger Vessel Services Act (often called the Jones Act) applies. Enacted in 1886, that act requires a foreign port call for any foreign flagged vessels sailing between U.S. ports. While big ships could simply bypass Canada and not be impacted by Transport Canada’s decision, they can’t legally do so within the U.S. under the Jones Act.

Given Alaska’s geographic position, the next closest “foreign port” would be in the Russian Far East, Mexico or the South Pacific, simply not a realistic option for any weeklong or 10-day cruises exploring southeastern Alaska and such ports as Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway.

Blanchard acknowledged that the Transport Canada decision impacting the 2021 Alaska season for larger ships "has shaken the boots of the industry. I was on [the phone] all night last night with friends and compatriots literally in tears. Tough, tough situation.”

As chairman of the new U.S. Overnight Passenger Small-Boat Operators Coalition, Blanchard said that UnCruise, an Alaska owned company, along with such other small-ship lines as American Cruise Lines (ACL), the Boat Company, Lindblad-National Geographic and Alaskan Dream Cruises, are all American flagged and operate small ships, so the Transport Canada decision doesn’t apply nor does the Jones Act adversely impact them.

Charles B. Robertson, president and CEO, American Cruise Lines, sent us this statement: “American Cruise Lines has been working closely with communities in Alaska and New England and looks forward to safely resuming small ship cruises this year."

He said ACL operates only U.S. flag ships on itineraries with domestic ports of call and is planning to operate as scheduled. We are proud of our American roots and together with other U.S. cruise operators, we look forward to contributing to the local economies that are impacted so significantly by the Canadian order.”

Another member, Victory Cruise Lines, owned by American Queen Steamboat Company, is foreign-flagged. Travel Agent received this message from John Waggoner, AQSC’s CEO, about what the situation in Alaska and Transport Canada’s decision means for that line: “Victory Cruise Lines is aware of the Transport Canada decision, which impacts our Great Lakes season and the debut of the Ocean Victory in Alaska. We continue working with government officials, fellow cruise lines as well as travel partners and look forward to returning to cruising when policies allow.”

Blanchard, whose line operates seven U.S.-flagged vessels, and one foreign flagged vessel, explained that the Jones Act is “a protective act put in place many years ago to protect U.S. sailors and U.S. companies and U.S.-built vessels from cheap foreign competition” but “that was intended for one thing and it’s turned into another.”  

But the big ships lines are almost all foreign-flagged, so that Transport Canada decision—which takes away the potential for those ships to call at Victoria or Vancouver as their foreign port call—has essentially shut down the big-ship Alaska cruise season.

Small Ships This Summer 

While loss of big ship cruising has negative implications for the Alaskan economy and big ship lines, “there is sailing in Alaska this summer," notes Blanchard. "We’re going to be there. The small, U.S.-flagged fleet is going to be there.”

As far as safety from COVID-19, “I’m happy to say that Alaska is the absolute safest place, according to many a website, concerning COVID-19,” he  said, citing a low transmission rate. “We’re already at 20 percent vaccination across the state, and that was several days ago, with many small communities reaching into the 50 and 60 percentile right now."

“So, Alaska is setting itself up for success from the standpoint of being ready for the visitor season, starting this summer," Blanchard emphasized. UnCruise Adventures will implement what he described as a triple testing program, that includes a pre-boarding PCR test and two other tests prior to boarding, and testing on the vessel. “So, it’s a pretty exhaustive testing program," and will be updated as needed.

"The vaccines that are coming out are being distributed quite well to our client group and we expect a high percentage of our guests to be vaccinated," at their own request. He said that will eventually change the protocol program, probably by late season.

Help for Big Ships

While UnCruise expects some 5,000 guests this year, versus the normal 6,000, due in part to capacity controls early in the season as well as a later start date, that pales in comparison to the tens of thousands of guests carried by one big ship in a single season.

Some industry sources have suggested an attempt to sway Canadian authorities to allow big ships to at least make technical calls (allowing those large ships to stop at a Canadian port without guests getting off—protecting the community but also allowing those large ships to abide by the Jones Act).

Blanchard didn't seem optimistic that there was anything in it for Canada in making technical calls and that the Canadian government was "tight" on preventing COVID-19.

That said, "we need the big ships in Alaska," said Blanchard. He suggested a better option would be a temporary waiver of the Jones Act. “I can’t speak for my other small ship partners but I can tell you that UnCruise Adventures would support a short-term exemption [to help those big ship lines], but getting that requires “political will, which is very questionable in my mind,” even if taxes were paid and so on.

Blanchard said he participated in a discussion with cruise industry officials last week, asking whether—if the Alaska or the industry was able to get a Jones Act extension—the lines could start June 1. His view of the answer: “It was a very shaky, probably not." The intelligence from that conversation was “it would at best be July 1."

Another issue? “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not been forthright in providing good guidance to the cruise lines on what they really need to do," Blanchard said, noting that there is a loose framework to restart service "but it's been difficult for the cruise lines to get reflection on what the CDC really wants… so they also have to meet this test sailing criteria.”

Typically, it could take between 110 and 120 days to activate a big vessel, and for ships in Asia or elsewhere across the globe, it’s even more problematic on the timeline. The ship has to be readied, the crew brought in and trained, and then the ship has to sail to Alaska. Also, economics may not be strong enough. “You start doing the math and if a cruise ship is going to arrive on July 1, are they going to run a season? It’s just a simple math economics,” Blanchard says.

For some, maybe those ships already currently staffed or closer physically, he adds, though: "They might be able to pull it off.”

Booking Trends

Who’s booking cruises with UnCruise? Has the demographic or psychographic changed in a pandemic era? Blanchard said, overall, the line is seeing typical booking trends with families, couples and singles all sailing.

But as people get vaccinated, there is almost an immediate pickup of the phone and they say, “I am sailing," he noted. One woman got vaccinated two weeks ago and “she called the day after her second vaccination and booked an April 30 trip with us in the Galapagos immediately and this is with full knowledge that they are going to be socially distancing, that they are going to be tested, that they’re going to wear masks.”

Blanchard notes that the line talks to guests about the line’s triple testing program and the resounding response is "I’ll test three times. I’ll test 10 times. Just get me aboard your boat."

His take? "For those of us in the business, that’s a wonderful energy [that] we like to feel, see and hear.”

Last year, the line had a guest on Wilderness Adventurer's first Alaska sailing who tested positive several days into the cruise. That resulted in the cancellation of the rest of the line's Alaska season. Later, the line learned that the test was a false positive. Blanchard said more testing available remotely and more frequent testing are among the "differences" guests can expect this year. “Remote PCR kits are available now,” he said, and “that means we’ll have a PCR kit in Juneau and on the boat—the gold standard.”

Alaska also will require a PCR test prior to guest arrival and the line is adding two antigen tests—one at check-in and one one prior to boarding in Alaska, as well as during the cruise itself. “Last year, we did not have the ability to have screening on the vessel,” he said. If someone tests positive, and subsequent tests confirm that result, the line has chartered a boat operator to transport the person to land for quarantine or treatment. 

As for bookings, up until two weeks ago, “we haven’t seen the lift off of the Wave Season,” but now it is starting, Blanchard said. People who are getting vaccinated are ready to sail. Others who don’t want to wear masks are making bookings into 2022.

Eighty-five percent of those on previously cancelled UnCruise Adventures voyages have plopped their Future Cruise Credits down for 2021. Most guests sailing on UnCruise are from the U.S., followed by guests from Australia and New Zealand or the United Kingdom. Only 2 percent of the line’s guests are from Canada. When it returns to sailing in Alaska this year, UnCruise will start at 75 percent capacity, and then by sometime in June be at 90 percent. One advantage of an adventure product is that guests spend lots of time off the vessel doing kayaking, hiking and outdoor activities.  

He said that a lot of media coverage last week reported that the Alaska cruise season is over, and “that inadvertently damaged us."  Will UnCruise operate this summer in Alaska? Blanchard’s response: “Of course, the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’"

But even though his company may stand to benefit from the loss of big ships, the recent Transport Canada decision is tough, he said: "It’s devastating to me as an Alaskan—devastating because so many of my friends own small businesses that are attached to the cruise industry who will now go through a second year of absolutely zero revenue.”

Related Stories

Will Vaccine Be Required in Cruising and Will That Impact Sales?

CLIA-NWC Responds to Canadian Ban of Larger Cruise Ships

MSC Cruises Aims to Restart Cruises to Greece By Easter

CDC Issues Order Requiring Travelers to Wear Face MasksThe U.S.