Small ship cruise lines are pressing ahead with plans to restart overnight cruises on the Columbia and Snake rivers, around Puget Sound and in Alaska. They aim to cast off in April and May while the big cruise ships remain laid up by a red light from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Connecticut-based American Cruise Lines is deploying a new high of six ships to the Pacific Northwest this season. The river cruise specialist said it will operate at a maximum guest capacity of 75% and require proof of a negative COVID-19 test for passengers when it restarts during the week of April 20. That will signal the end of a 13 month suspension of cruise travel in the Pacific Northwest.
Meanwhile, competitor UnCruise Adventures is relaunching with a requirement that all adult passengers and crew be fully vaccinated to go on board. The Seattle-based cruise line is also going with pre-departure COVID-19 testing as an extra measure of safety.
"With the vaccination rates that are happening and the availability of vaccines across the nation, I believe I would be negligent to my crew if I didn't make this decision," said UnCruise CEO Dan Blanchard. "Our guests are ready to go."
Cruise ships carrying fewer than 250 passengers and crew are not affected by the CDC's restrictive guidelines (aka Conditional Sailing Order), which are preventing large cruise ships from sailing from U.S. ports. A broader CDC rule still requires all travelers by air or sea to wear a mask on board, regardless of vaccination status.
The small ship cruise lines that plan to operate on the Columbia River and ply the waters of Puget Sound and Southeast Alaska this year use U.S.-flagged boats with U.S. crews, unlike their larger brethren. Those bigger foreign-built cruise ships are foreign-flagged and rely on foreign crews, factors which present additional hurdles that doomed the 2021 Pacific Northwest-to-Alaska big ship cruise season.
During a joint press conference with Blanchard that was streamed online Monday, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon enthusiastically welcomed the return of a small slice of the cruise business that their state traditionally depends on in late spring and summer.
"Juneau is open," Weldon said. "We are looking forward to a lot of visitors."
"Vaccinations are going quite well," the mayor added. "We are working hard to get us all vaccinated so when you come here you will be safe."
Washington and Oregon public health regulators have been more circumspect about the planned resumption of cruise travel.
"We are aware they are wanting to get up and operating and we are in conversations with them and a number of other sectors as we continue on this pathway to recovery," said Washington Deputy Health Secretary Lucy Fehrenbach during a media briefing Thursday. Fehrenbach coordinates industry-specific COVID-19 operating protocols.
A Washington State Department of Health spokesperson subsequently declined to offer greater detail about what the conversations covered.
The Oregon Health Authority issued its own "no sail order" last summer when several river cruise lines were eager to restart. The risk of COVID-19 spread from large numbers of people in a "close-contact environment" was among the reasons given. The agency said that order is no longer in effect in light of improved disease trends.
"There is nothing currently prohibiting river cruises from operating in Oregon," OHA spokesperson Rudy Owens said in an email. "However, this is an activity that poses some level of risk."
Blanchard said as far as he is concerned, "we fit within the law" to cast off on UnCruise's first 7-night Puget Sound and San Juan Islands small ship cruise of the season on April 30. That will be followed with two departures in May from Seattle with 74 to 86-passenger vessels on Inside Passage cruises to Southeast Alaska. UnCruise plans to have six ships on the Alaska circuit at its peak, one of which will reposition to Portland in September to serve the Columbia River cruising market.
American Cruise Lines plans to launch its Pacific Northwest cruise season in less than a month. It has penciled in the first departure from Seattle on April 20 on one of several Puget Sound and Olympic Peninsula itineraries. The 190-passenger American Harmony is slated to depart Portland the next day on the company's first Columbia-Snake River cruise of the season. A sister ship is scheduled to cast off from Clarkston, Washington, on April 23 doing the itinerary in reverse.
"American Cruise Lines always works with states, local ports and local communities in all regions where we cruise to be sure our operations meet the individual area's restrictions and regulations," company spokesperson Alexa Paolella said in an email Friday.
American Cruise Lines says on its website that its guests are "strongly encouraged" to get a COVID-19 vaccine prior to travel, but it is not required. The operator also said it takes pride in shipboard technology which includes independent ventilations systems with no shared ducting between rooms or public spaces.
American Queen Steamship Company operates the biggest paddlewheeler in the Northwest coastal and river cruise market, the 223-passenger American Empress. This line has delayed its relaunch of Columbia and Snake river cruises to a date forthcoming in late spring as it tinkers with health and safety protocols. A spokesperson for the cruise line said it will introduce a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for passengers and crew, which will start July 1.
Lindblad Expeditions is a fourth small ship cruise purveyor that traditionally offers a full slate of Columbia-Snake River and Puget Sound cruises. Its revised 2021 ship schedule shows Lindblad starting its season in Alaska in May and not offering its first Pacific Northwest cruises until September.