With the fate of the 2021 cruise tourism season in Alaska still very much hanging in the balance, small-boat operators are reporting seeing more demand than ever from travelers who are looking for more intimate — and definite — voyages along the 49th state's vast coastline.
"We've definitely seen an increase in demand," said Zakary Kirkpatrick, who is a member of the executive team for Alaskan Dream Cruises, a company that is running 11 itineraries within southeast Alaska's Inside Passage this season. "Fortunately, we're a U.S.-flagged, U.S.-built, small-boat cruise line, so we don't fall under the same rules as the larger, foreign-flagged cruise lines."
In early February, Canada's Minister of Transport announced plans to extend the cruise ban the country enacted last March in response to the coronavirus pandemic until February 2022. It is a move that could keep large cruise ships at harbor for a second season in a row. Because the majority of large cruise ships are registered in countries such as the Bahamas, Panama and Malta, they are banned by a 135-year-old maritime law from transporting passengers between ports in the United States. Usually cruise lines that offer sailings to Alaska get around the rule by starting or ending their trips at a port in Canada, which is no longer an option.
Alaska Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan have since introduced the Alaska Tourism Recovery Act. If passed, it would allow ships to travel from Washington to southeast Alaska without the required stop at a Canadian port. Until then, only ships that fly U.S. flags and carry fewer than 100 passengers can travel through Canadian waters.
Alaska's Resource Development Council reported that in 2018, nearly 1.2 million travelers to Alaska came on a cruise, compared to 760,100 air and 97,200 highway visitors. While many of the major cruise lines have declined to cancel their trips just yet, they are not taking new bookings, which might explain the uptick for small-vessel operations.
While the smaller vessels may not have as many amenities as the large ones do (think pools, theaters, and designated kids areas) and often come with a significantly higher price tag, the exclusivity does have one coronavirus-era bonus: easier social distancing.
"Across the industry, small ships in general are getting a lot more attention, because there's more ability for social distancing," said Trey Byus, chief expedition officer for Lindblad Expeditions, a company that is operating sailings in Alaska's southeast, as well as less cruised areas in the Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea.
Lindblad hasn't yet announced its coronavirus safety measures, but Byus said he believes the measures will be among "the strongest in the industry and also very rational." Alaskan Dream Cruises has already publicly laid out plans, the first of which is to require all guests to have a PCR test within 72 hours of embarkation. Once aboard, passengers will also be asked to complete daily wellness questionnaires and temperature checks. Other measures include constant disinfection of common areas and touch points, installing sterilizing ultraviolet lights, setting up hand sanitizing stations throughout, and eliminating self-serve food and beverage options in favor of served meals.
Kirkpatrick noted that it has become increasingly popular for groups to book out an entire ship (their smallest accommodates 10 passengers) so the only people they mix with outside their pod, while on the boat at least, is the crew. There are also a number of companies, including EYOS Expeditions, Alaska Sea Adventures, Alaska Private Touring, and Alaskan Luxury Cruises, among others, that exclusively offer private charters.
"A lot of people take a smaller vessel like mine, because it's going to be just them and myself, the cook, and steward," said Alaska Luxury Cruises captain and owner Jeff Gorton, adding that demand has been so high, his season is almost sold out.
While those private charters are usually the smallest option, the exclusivity and customizable sailing options demand the highest bill, usually charging by night, not by the number of guests aboard. A night on Gorton's boat, for example, is $10,000 for the group, whereas non-private small-boat tours range from a total of $2,500 into five digits depending on the number of days, distance covered and the level of luxury. Beyond Alaskan Dream Cruises and Lindblad Expeditions, a handful of other operators with Alaska sailings this season include UnCruise Adventures, the Boat Company Explorations and American Cruise Lines.
From mega ships to smaller boats, there is no bad way to see Alaska's coast. However, another benefit of smaller ships in general, Kirkpatrick noted, is an ability to have a more flexible itinerary.
"If we're headed to a port of call, but we see a group of humpback whales, we're going to divert course and hang out to let people savor that Alaska moment," Kirkpatrick said. Byus echoed that, saying their voyages will often stop to observe bears or watch mountain goats climb the cliffs on the shore.
Similarly, the size of the vessels allows for more nimbleness to get into untouched areas and smaller towns that the bigger vessels can't.
"We can get into the fjords, the coves, the bays, and all the other little nooks and crannies where the large ships just can't go," Byus said. "You don't need a port or a dock to get ashore, so just by the very design of the ship, we have the ability to have a very different experience."