‘Cruise ships are back, baby’: Alaska’s first large cruise ship in 21 months visits Ketchikan

A woman in a black Tlingit-patterned robe beats on a drum and sings
Kristy Shields of the Cape Fox Dancers welcomes Ketchikan’s first large cruise ship since 2019 with drumming and song on July 9, 2021. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

The first large cruise ship to visit Alaska since 2019 arrived in Ketchikan early last Friday morning.

The cruise ship was on a federally-mandated test voyage, and marked the symbolic start of the Alaska cruise season.

Around 6 a.m., the 965-foot ship rounded Pennock Island and came into view from the Southeast Alaska community. Longshoreman Andy Jackson watched from his car at the far end of one of Ketchikan’s berths.

“I was just thinking that it’s awesome to see that again. Because we haven’t seen that since…” Jackson said before a pause. It’s been a very long time — 21 months, 640-odd days, one and three-quarters years, if you like.”

There have been a number of small cruise ships with 100 or so passengers sailing around the Inside Passage since the spring, and independent tourists have jam-packed flights to and from Southeast Alaska this summer. But the return of the first big ship is a milestone, said Patti Mackey, head of the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau.

“Looks like things are starting to look a little more normal for Ketchikan,” she said.

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The Cape Fox Dancers greeted passengers last week with some traditional Tlingit dance and song.

But instead of thousands of visitors from around the world, the first ship brought just a few hundred cruise line employees.

John Chambers was the first to disembark. He was one of roughly 300 fully-vaccinated Royal Caribbean employees who arrived on the Serenade. They’re not being paid, but he says that’s not the point.

“I’ve been working for the cruise line for 15 years now. And this is my fourth time to Ketchikan. I was really excited to be the first one back, and I actually got to be the first one back,” he said.

Chambers’ job was to kick back, relax and enjoy the ride as the 800 or so crew did a dry run of the ship’s anti-COVID protocols.

Royal Caribbean Vice President of Government Relations Russell Benford said federal health inspectors were aboard, making sure the ship’s procedures were up to snuff.

Longshoremen secure the Royal Caribbean ship Serenade of the Seas to Ketchikan’s cruise ship docks on Friday. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

“We do actually have observers from the CDC that are on the ship, so they’re going to observe all the protocols from start to finish,” Benford said. “And if we do well and they give us a green light, then the ship can return to service with revenue passengers.”

He said Royal Caribbean ships will start the season running at reduced capacity.

“We’ll start around 40% to 50%, and then we’ll increase our capacity over time until we get back to all of our ships in service, and back to 100% capacity, within the next few months,” he said.

Crew members aboard the Serenade of the Seas, the first large ship to return to Alaska, wave at onlookers on July 9, 2021. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

The simulated voyage is an optional step for cruise lines — they can get around the test cruise requirement by mandating that 95% of passengers are vaccinated. Benford said Royal Caribbean is opting for the test cruise because many of its passengers are children under 12 and ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Its sister line Celebrity is skipping a test cruise. Benford said that line appeals mostly to adults.

Dignitaries, industry figures and local officials marked the Serenade’s arrival with a catered reception with speeches and music, both from Ketchikan’s New Path Dancers and a jazz trio.

The ship’s arrival is a symbol — with just a few hundred passengers on this test cruise, it doesn’t bring many more than some of the small cruise ships. But U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski says it sends a powerful message.

“It feels good to just see a big ship back, because we know that today’s visit is just just the beginning,” Murkowski said. “It’s going to be a short season, but we’re going to have a season.”

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski dances during a hooligan-gathering song led by Ketchikan’s Su Ląxgayną – New Path Dancers. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer put it this way:

“This is a celebration. The cruise ships are back, baby,” he said.

Returning ships to Alaska was no small task. Two major barriers stood in the way of a 2021 season — restrictions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and closed ports in Canada. But in April and May, the CDC issued rules for ships to start sailing again, and Alaska’s congressional delegation pushed through a bill waiving a federal requirement for ships to make a foreign stop on Alaska cruises.

And now, cruises are set to return.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses from here. The 2021 cruise season will bring just a fraction of the 1.3 million passengers who visited Southeast Alaska in 2019. And that was on the mind of independent tour operator Steve McDonald.

“There is no season,” he said. “I mean, we’re just going to meet a few ships. But hey, it’s always good to see people and get out and get ready. Hopefully, people around town will put a few dollars in their pockets and things should run smoothly.”

He and some other tourism business owners said they think they’ll struggle until at least 2022. Meyer, the lieutenant governor, said the state is readying a grant program for businesses who will need some extra help to make it through to next year.

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