Royal Carribean’s Spectrum of the Seas is the company’s latest Quantum-class ship. It has a capacity of 4,180 passengers on 13 cabin decks. Two of the ships will be making regular calls in Sitka in 2022. (Flickr photo/Robert Pittman)

The cruise industry in Southeast Alaska remains frustrated by Canada’s decision to close its ports to large ships for the year, effectively prohibiting anything close to a typical visitor season in 2021. But in 2022, the cruise rebound in ports like Sitka could be staggering.

Representatives from the industry outlined some of the barriers to cruising in the coming season, and warned about a record surge in the next, during a presentation to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce (2-17-21).

Mike Tibbles is with the Cruise Lines International Association in Juneau. CLIA represents 17 of the cruise lines that sail in Southeast, from the biggest players in the market, to some of the small ships.

Canada’s announcement in early February that it would not open its ports to ships with more than 100 passengers for another year amounted to putting a tourniquet on Alaskan cruising. But he thinks Canada’s no-sail order could be revised under the right circumstances.

“So I think we were a little surprised that it went all the way out to February of ‘22,” said Tibbles. “But we have been continuing to communicate with Canadian officials. They’ve indicated that they’re focused on the health aspect, and that if conditions improve, an interim order is not as tough as a regulation. So that date could potentially be revisited.”

But it’s not just a matter of Canada rescinding its order. Tibbles explained that the US Centers for Disease Control had replaced its own no-sail order with a framework that allows cruising, under rigorous safety guidelines that cover everything from single-use berths for crew members and lavatories, to test sailings and safety plans for port communities. Putting a cruise season together under these terms — on short notice — would be an extraordinary challenge.

“We have a really high hurdle here,” said Tibbles. “It’s going to be extremely difficult to align these things — getting the guidance from the CDC and meeting those requirements, finding some solution to the announcement from Canada, and then getting all the plans in place with the local communities before sailing.”

Even if there was movement from Alaska’s congressional delegation for a workaround for the Passenger Vessel Services Act — the law which requires all foreign-flagged ships to stop in a foreign port while on their Alaskan itineraries — Tibble said, “We have an uphill fight.”

There could be another kind of fight in 2022, however, if the COVID pandemic is brought under control: The struggle of Southeast communities to keep their heads above water under a deluge of cruise visitors.

Chris McGraw runs what was formerly known as “Old Sitka Dock,” and has now been rebranded as the “Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal.” He said that Royal Carribean was adding three ships to  its Southeast Alaska itinerary.

“And two of those ships will be their Quantum-class ships,” he said, “which have capacities in excess of 4,000 passengers.”

That could push Sitka’s cruise visitor count in 2022 to over 400,000, a record for the community. McGraw is investing in a new passenger terminal at his facility, expanding its capacity from just over 2,000 people to something around 9,000. He’s uprgraded his docks to accommodate two of the 1,100-foot Quantum-class ships.

Halibut Point Marine’s expansion plans include upgrading its passenger terminal to accommodate 9,000 passengers. Owner Chris McGraw wants the rest of Sitka to be prepared for the record volumes. (HPM image)

He wants the rest of Sitka to be ready.

“Looking forward to 2022 I think Sitka really needs to start planning to adequately accommodate from both a local perspective and a visitor perspective, these passenger volumes,” said McGraw. “Planning for Centennial Hall needs to be developed, the large shuttle traffic.”

McGraw said that there could be over 40 days in the summer of 2022 with over 5,000 cruise passengers in town, which would mean running 25 shuttles. He noted that Sitka’s downtown Lincoln Street corridor feels crowded when there are only 1,500 passengers in town.

“And we’re going to have days when we have 8,000 passengers,” he warned, “and the sidewalks, the traffic — that all needs to be improved in my opinion.”

He recommended that anybody in the industry begin thinking about the issues stemming from such large increases in volume, and that local government should begin planning. He said, “Everyone should be able to enjoy themselves and live in Sitka without feeling like we’re being overrun with visitors.”