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Port of Seattle sees hope for a 2021 Alaska cruise season after latest CDC guidance

Alaska cruises based in Seattle may face an additional hurdle when it comes to reopening the season — but one official has become more optimistic.

SEATTLE — New guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says if 98% of the crew and 95% of passengers are fully vaccinated, cruise ships could potentially sail from U.S. ports and bypass simulated test voyages. 

That's good news for the Port of Seattle, which would very much like to see its $900 million dollar cruise business to Alaska start up again, at least salvaging the last 25% of the 2020 season.

“We are hopeful, but no doubt, it’s a steep hill to climb,” says Stephanie Jones Stebbins, Managing Director for the maritime side of the Port of Seattle.  “The guidance is much clearer than it’s been. But we are working all the pieces, but this provides hope for a cruise season in 2021.” 

Unlike Miami, Florida or Southern California, what makes the Seattle to Alaska market more complex is the requirement that a foreign-flagged ship hauling passengers from one U.S. port to another U.S. port must make a stop in another country, based on U.S. law. Most of the Alaska-bound cruises coming out of Seattle are on foreign-flagged ships.

That other factor is Canada, which has maintained tight border rules with the U.S. during the pandemic. Canada has already said foreign cruise ships wouldn’t dock in the country until 2022.

Stebbins says her office as well as congressional delegations from multiple sates are working that issue.

Stebbins says a "technical stop" in a Canadian port where nobody gets off or on might be a potential answer, or a U.S. suspension of the rule known as the Passenger Services Act.

“After six months the CDC is finally engaging the cruise industry,” said Stewart Chiron, the Miami-based travel expert known as “The Cruise Guy.”

The often-quoted Chiron says he’s been part of the cruise industry and has studied it for three decades, but he is not optimistic that the Alaska season can be saved, despite the shift in the CDC’s stance. 

“This definitely will show how to get Caribbean sailings out of the U.S. in 2021, which would include Texas, California and up in the northeast, but at this point, I think it’s going to be very, very hard to have an Alaska season out of Seattle, which is very, very important.” 

Chiron  says it can take 90 days to get ships ready and staffed up with crews and passengers booked, and that may not leave much of a season. 

“It’s a step forward, it’s very positive. The question, is it too little too late to save certain destinations for this summer? " Chiron said. "Alaska is really behind the eight ball."

But he's open to the possibility.

"I’d love to be able to say, 'Hey, this is wonderful,'” Chiron said. 

But Stebbins at the Port of Seattle said her optimism about the season is a little higher than it was in early April.

“The guidance from the CDC really provides a productive path forward,” Stebbins said.