City leaders are waiting to learn more about the City and Borough of Juneau’s protocols that allow cruise ships to resume sailing. The Norwegian Pearl cruise ship, right, pulls into the AJ Dock in Juneau in September 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

City leaders are waiting to learn more about the City and Borough of Juneau’s protocols that allow cruise ships to resume sailing. The Norwegian Pearl cruise ship, right, pulls into the AJ Dock in Juneau in September 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Amid COVID, cruise season planning is off to a slow start

The Assembly faces obstacles in setting local health protocols for visitors.

With a much-anticipated cruise season around the corner, critical questions about COVID protocols for passengers visiting Juneau remain unanswered, with no clear timeline for resolution.

City Manager Rorie Watt updated the City and Borough of Juneau’s Assembly members at the Committee of the Whole meeting Monday night. He said local discussion is on hold amid unanswered questions about when ships will sail and the protocols they will follow when they do.

“There’s been no action. We are trying to figure out how to have a discussion,” Watt said.

He explained that before local coordination can happen, larger players in the process, like the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, must issue guidance and health protocols for cruising to resume.

Mayor Beth Weldon said that most of Southeast Alaska’s port communities are looking to Juneau to take the lead on the issue.

She said CBJ is drafting a letter on behalf of the region to federal leaders, the CDC and the incoming Biden administration to jump-start the discussion. In addition, she said, she’s shared the region’s concerns with the Alaska Municipal League and Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

“Since it’s a long lead time business, we want to move forward. There’s a heavy lift for the industry to get going, and there’s anxiety in the region that conversations are not happening fast enough. There’s anxiety that delays will mean ports are ready and ships aren’t,” Watt said.

Watt explained that beyond CDC guidance, a variety of hurdles must be cleared before cruising can resume. He said that ports must be ready, ships must be staffed and positioned, marketing must take place to find passengers and the public must feel safe enough to book trips.

Assembly member Michelle Bonnet Hale echoed the concern about the lack of information creating anxiety.

“I hear from members of the community that ships will bring COVID to the community, and people are also worried about the ships not being here and the effect that has on their revenue and livelihood. It’s not really in our hands,” she said.

Summer season uncertainty

Cruise tourism is critical to the economy of Southeast Alaska, and the prospects for the 2021 season are unclear.

Cruise lines announce sailings pause

As the Empire reported last week, several cruise lines owned by Carnival Cruise Line announced they are extending a pause on sailings as they try to find ways to operate under new health guidelines.

Carnival Cruise Line, which owns Holland America Line and Princess Cruises, announced it was suspending all sailings until April 30. For Holland America, Alaska departures aren’t scheduled until mid-May, but exact dates weren’t set. Princess Cruises is suspending all cruises through May 14, according to a statement from the company.

Norwegian Cruise Line has similarly suspended all sailings through March, according to the company’s website.

“The 2021 season has a lot of question marks. I expect that when the season starts, it will be soft,” Watt said.

He added that the strength of the season will likely depend on how aggressively vaccines are distributed throughout the nation. But he expects the 2022 season to be very strong based on pent-up demand for vacations.

Visitor Congestion

Prior to the cancellation of the 2020 cruise season, Juneau’s leaders were grappling with local concerns about too many passengers visiting the capital each season.

Norwegian Cruise Line seeks public feedback on dock proposal

In late 2019, a Visitor Industry Task Force was formed to explore aspects of tourism management.

Representatives of the group presented their initial recommendations to the committee Monday night. Ideas included more centralized management of cruise ship scheduling, offering economic incentives for docking on less-busy days and improving infrastructure.

The committee accepted the report and requested that the city manager develop an implementation strategy to be reviewed at a later date.

Contact Dana Zigmund a dana.zigmund@juneauempire.com or 907-308-4891.

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