Unable to sail ships, Alaskan companies pivot to ‘dry cruises’

Fran Golden

BLOOMBERG – Cruising may be on hold, but thousands of Holland America Line and Princess Cruises loyalists are still hoping to head to Alaska this summer with their favourite travel companies. And they probably will manage to do so – just not on a ship.

Call it a “dry cruise”.

Instead of admiring glaciers and frolicking whales off the shores of Alaska’s southern coastal towns, they will bus through the wilds of Denali National Park and Preserve to spot bear, moose, and caribou. They’ll glimpse North America’s largest peak and spend time in Anchorage, with a boat tour of Portage Glacier.

Rather than connecting the dots on their itinerary via 5,000-passenger cruise ships, they’ll traverse the state on trains with viewing domes, hitting land-locked Fairbanks to learn about life up north.

All this is being facilitated by Carnival’s Princess and Holland America cruise lines, which have recently found themselves unable to do business here otherwise.

Cabotage laws dating to the late 1800s require foreign-flagged ships like Carnival’s to call at an international port along every United States (US) voyage – making a trip to Alaska impossible without Canada’s cooperation. And in February the country banned cruise ships from its ports until March 2022.

Boat slips stand empty at a dock in Juneau, Alaska. PHOTOS: BLOOMBERG
The Princess Cruise Lines Island Princess Cruises ship passes in front of Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay, Alaska

Enter Carnival’s land trips. They intend to salvage business for two sister brands that together make up nearly half the lucrative Alaska cruise market – which had projected a record-breaking 1.4 million passengers last summer before the pandemic brought that number to zero. In 2019, of the nearly 2.5 million people who visited Alaska, more than half were on ships. Dry cruises aren’t as radical as they sound. Carnival may be most famous for its ships, but in Alaska it also owns the massive Gray Line Alaska ground operation, including a fleet of deluxe motor coaches, 20 private rail cars (pulled by Alaska Railroad trains), and 10 hotels.

In a normal year many of these facilities would attract passengers who want to extend their vacations to explore Alaska’s interior. Typically it’s the ancillary business; now it’s the only one.

“The idea is salvaging some of the season,” said Charlie Ball, who heads Alaska operations for the two cruise lines. “There are many hand-raisers who want to go to Alaska.”

Here’s how dry cruises in Alaska will work in 2021: Those who book escorted packages, priced from USD2,599 per person, will fly into Anchorage on their own accord before joining a tour director and group of 26 for an all-inclusive vacation with train tickets, activities, and meals.

They’re designed to be like “a cruise on land”, said Ball.

Unescorted packages, from USD1,699 per person, offer the full itinerary without the group or guide. Bookings are via Gray Line Alaska, for a season that stretches from late May into the first week of September.

The cruise lines are re-opening two seasonal lodges for the trips, initially at 25 per cent to 28 per cent capacity to allow for social distancing.

Near the entrance of Denali National Park is the 60-acre, riverfront complex called McKinley Chalet Resort, which normally accommodates almost 1,200 guests (mostly Holland America Line cruisegoers); farther south, on the Kenai River in Copper Landing, is the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge, whose 86 bungalow-style rooms have wood-burning stoves and private balconies.

Both properties are considered first class by Alaska standards.

From those home bases – along with Holland America Line’s 400-room Westmark Fairbanks Hotel and the independently owned Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage – the cruise lines will be able to provide a revenue stream to local tourism businesses, like flightseeing and rafting operators. Among them there’s even a local cruise company called Riverboat Discovery, which does touristy yet popular four-hour trips on the Chena and Tanana rivers from its three-deck stern-wheeler.

The goal is to expand these tour options to the financially hard-hit communities in the southeast, including Juneau and Skagway, where Holland America Line has another hotel.

“We’re still looking at that,” Ball said. “We have great ability to scale this business pretty quickly.”

Another summer without tourism would be catastrophic for Alaska’s local communities. The economic loss is estimated at nearly USD1 billion from missed cruise passenger spending and taxes and fees paid by the cruise lines to state and local communities.

That big number has even bigger implications. In the tourism-reliant Denali Borough, for instance, the bed tax at hotels pays much of the school system’s budget. While it’s unclear how much of that money can be salvaged with land tours, the trips offer a minimum guarantee for locals: hundreds of newly available jobs. Likely in the mix will be drivers to shuttle passengers on motor coaches and teachers-turned-tour guides.

Carnival is also looking to retain its full-time Alaska workforce of more than 600, which was temporarily furloughed during last year’s pandemic shutdown.

“A decent mechanic in Alaska can walk down the street and get a new job in five days,” said Ball, adding that a loss of such talent would be detrimental to the company’s “intellectual capital”.

The exact number of employees this year will depend on sales, he added, acknowledging that it will likely be a full order of magnitude lower than normal years. “The model is to start small and hope for growth.”

There are Hail Mary efforts under way to bring back cruises this season.

If passed, legislation filed by members of the state’s congressional delegation in early March would allow temporary exemptions to those currently prohibitive cabotage laws.

But even then, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would have to clear ships to sail – which so far seems a distant prospect.

“We have seen double-digit employment declines in Southeast (Alaska) and a more than 30 per cent drop in revenue statewide,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski in a statement.

“Missing another cruise season would only compound the economic fallout that has been devastating for so many families.”

Whether on land or sea, cruise companies will have to address COVID-19 protocols ahead of the season’s start.

The plan is to have 100 per cent of the staff vaccinated.

Ball said that unvaccinated guests will be welcome, but all guests – regardless of antibodies – will be asked to mask up and social distance.

Deep cleaning procedures will be in place, motor coaches and restaurants will operate at reduced capacity, and a local healthcare company will execute COVID-19 testing for any visitor who arrives without negative PCR results or develops symptoms.

Ball said Carnival was confident about interest in its land programme based on preview discussions with travel agents and tour operators. Since bookings opened earlier this month, he said the company is “very pleased” with the initial response.

“There are people who want to get out and travel,” Ball said, adding that Alaska has both wide-open spaces and a high rate of resident vaccination. “If not Alaska this summer, then where?”