Dan Blanchard, CEO of UnCruise Adventures, stands in front of a ship on May 14, 2021. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

Dan Blanchard, CEO of UnCruise Adventures, stands in front of a ship on May 14, 2021. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

Smooth sailing for the 2022 season?

Cautious optimism reigns, but operators say it’s too early to tell.

JUNEAU — After a pandemic-tempered cruise season in 2021 and no cruise season in 2020 due to the pandemic, Juneau business operators are keeping a close eye on signals for how 2022 may unfold.

Many say it’s still too soon to tell but express cautious optimism for a robust season ahead — despite the current omicron wave of COVID-19 disrupting life in many parts of the country.

In late December, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised passengers to avoid cruise ships regardless of vaccination status. Earlier this month, the CDC lifted the Conditional Sailing Order, allowing cruise ships to voluntarily comply with health and safety mitigations.

According to Alexandra Pierce, tourism manager for the City and Borough of Juneau, all of these factors make it difficult to say what will happen this season.

“This is the time when cruise lines do most of their bookings,” Pierce said. “It all really depends on what happens with COVID in the next few months and how that affects people’s desire to cruise and whether cruises even happen at all.”

Pierce said she is still hearing positive messages from the industry and noted that berthing schedules show a steady lineup of cruises to Juneau this summer.

“If I was asked, under duress, to place a bet, I’d say we will probably see all the ships that are scheduled, but they probably won’t be at full capacity,” Pierce said.

Pierce said many cruise ship companies are messaging around health and safety protocols, such as vaccines and testing, and their efforts to create a safe travel experience.

“I have not heard about any lines making any changes to the way they are operating,” Pierce said. “I’m hopeful they will continue to do that.”

[Cruise critics reflect on shortened season]

Demand for cruising

Small cruise operators report strong demand for cruises to Southeast Alaska this year.

According to Liz Galloway, director of marketing and communications for UnCruise Adventures, the company is on pace with pre-pandemic booking levels — which she attributes to passengers rebooking and “pent up demand and new bookings for adventure.”

“We still have the largest selection of small ship cruises and itineraries in Alaska within our industry and we have seen a growing interest for the 2022 summer season,” Galloway said in an email.

“We are almost at pace with our pre-COVID year for bookings and website traffic is above double last year’s. Domestic wilderness travel is in demand and we are uniquely positioned to provide that with 6 vessels in Alaska this summer filling up,” Galloway said.

Lindblad Expeditions, which operates National Geographic cruises out of Southeast Alaska, also reported strong demand.

“Bookings look very strong, in fact, the NG Sea Bird almost sold out, so we are bringing NG Sea Lion there and adding some additional departures,” said Patty Disken-Cahill, spokesperson for Lindblad Expeditions. “We will also have NG Venture and NG Quest in Alaska, so a total of four for the season.”

Zak Kirkpatrick, director of marketing and public relations for Allen Marine Tours, said that the company’s small ship cruise line, Alaskan Dream Cruises, is seeing demand and that he feels good about the upcoming season.

“People are generally feeling optimistic that even with this state of affairs, a lot of people are hoping and optimistic that by summer this will dramatically die down,” Kirkpatrick said.

He said it was too early to gauge how the company’s same-day excursions aimed at passengers on large-deck cruise lines were selling.

Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire
Dan Blanchard, CEO of UnCruise Adventures, stands in front of a ship on May 14, 2021.

Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire Dan Blanchard, CEO of UnCruise Adventures, stands in front of a ship on May 14, 2021.

In terms of large-deck cruising, Renée Limoge Reeve, vice president of government and community relations for trade association Cruise Lines International Association Alaska, said the current omicron wave is showing an impact on bookings and demand across the entire travel sector, including cruises. But, she said she’s hopeful.

“We are hopeful that this phase of the pandemic will pass quickly and that the effects we are seeing will emerge as more of a delay in bookings rather than a loss. Regardless, all indications point to the fact that Alaska remains a popular destination and a bucket-list trip for people around the world and we remain optimistic for a solid season,” Reeve said in an email to the Empire.

[Small businesses still struggling due to pandemic’s effect on travel]

Erik Elvejord, director of public relations for the Holland America Line, said that six ships will sail to Alaska this summer.

“Bookings for Alaska remain steady and we really believe that guests are looking ahead to this summer as a chance to get back to doing what they love,” Elvejord said in an email to the Empire.

“We are excited about the potential of a full season of Alaska operations and the opportunity to bring travelers to Alaska, where we have operated for 75 years this summer, and support the local communities across the state,” he said.

Elvejord said that the company is extending its “Worry-Free Promise” and allowing additional cancellation options for trips booked by March 31.

Matt Lupoli, senior manager of public relations at Carnival Cruise Line, confirmed that the line plans to sail two ships to Alaska but did not immediately respond to questions about bookings on the vessels.

Speaking on behalf of Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Christina Moschetti said the company does not publicly disclose booking information.

A representative from Norwegian Cruise Line said they needed more time to respond to the Empire’s inquiry.

Princess Cruises, Disney Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruise Lines, and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines did not immediately respond to the Empire’s inquiry. However, all companies show vessels arriving in Juneau during the 2022 cruise season, according to the CLIAA website.

Local experience

Serene Hutchinson, general manager of Juneau Tours & Whale Watch, said she feels “very positive” about the coming season in a Thursday afternoon call with the Empire.

She said that so far, her off-season travel bookings are tracking with the sales level from 2017.

But, she said the bookings have been more “bumpy” than typical pre-pandemic times.

“Normally, bookings in October are light, then November gets a pop as families get together for Thanksgiving and we get another pop around Christmas,” she said. “Once we hit Jan. 4 or 5, we usually see this really sexy, steep climb that continues until April.”

She said the news cycle is driving bookings this year.

“I got very disheartened when the CDC said don’t cruise earlier this year,” adding that she feared refund requests would follow the news.

“It throttled our sales for a while,” she said. “But we got very few refund requests. Our phone ringing or not ringing is affected by the news.”

[Here’s what locals think about cruise ship tourism]

Hutchinson said she’s answering many questions about COVID-19 mitigations from potential customers. She said that she plans to do the “maximum recommended” mitigations.

“Whatever the recs are, we are all going to be doing them,” she said.

Alan Corbett, captain of the Narwhal, a whale watching vessel, said it’s too early to tell how bookings will look this season. He said he runs more private tours and fewer mixed groups of cruise ship passengers.

“It’s early days. I would not expect to see much until February. We are probably about two weeks ahead of getting a good read on what things are going to look like,” he said in a Thursday morning call.

Hutchinson said she’s hoping to see reservations continue to rise in the weeks ahead.

“I mean, you know, we are all ready. We are waiting here,” she said.

• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at dana.zigmund@juneauempire.com or 907-308-4891.

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