Ketchikan’s 2021 cruise ship season concluded on Thursday with the Norwegian Encore’s departure from Ward Cove, the ship’s size and sparkle serving as a reminder of what might have been — and what many hope will be.
Only time will tell what the future holds.
In 2020, as it was becoming clear that the pandemic would erase that year’s cruise season, we anticipated that ships large and small could return in near-regular numbers in 2021.
Alas, that was not to be. The surge in COVID-19 cases that started at the end of 2020 prompted the Canadian federal government on Feb. 4 to announce a ban on large cruise ships in Canadian ports through Feb. 28, 2022.
That ban alone could have prevented a 2021 cruise season in Alaska because of a U.S. law that requires large, foreign-flagged passenger ships to make at least one port call in a non-U.S. port while transporting passengers between U.S. ports. Fortunately, led by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska congressional delegation was able to secure unanimous consent from Congress for a temporary waiver of the U.S. law — a remarkable achievement, expecially with the current divisions in U.S. politics.
COVID-19 remained a factor, though. With significant mitigation measures in place, small cruise ships began operating a few cruises in Southeast Alaska beginning in May. Although May marks the traditional start of the large ship cruise season, the first large ship to call in Ketchikan since 2019 was the Serenade of the Seas on July 9. Even that was a “test cruise” with between 200 and 300 volunteer passengers on board.
It wasn’t until the end of July that full fleet of what would be eight large ships began to arrive in Ketchikan for a much-abbreviated season (In 2018, about 30 large cruise ships made at least one stop in Ketchikan; most had full seasons spanning from May through September).
Still, there was cruise history being made in 2021. On Aug. 4, the Norwegian Encore became the first cruise ship to moor at the Ward Cove Dock Group’s facility in Ward Cove.
The Encore continued to call at Ward Cove every Thursday before concluding its Ketchikan season on Thursday afternoon.
It departed into a misty grey horizon that’s reflective of the still-uncertain hopes that the community and industry have for the 2022 season.
As recently as late September, the travel press was reporting strong demand for Alaska cruises despite sharply softer interest in Caribbean itineraries. Cruise lines are offering Alaska voyages within the traditional seasonal time frame.
Meanwhile, Canada in July dialed back its large-ship port call ban, which now will end on Nov. 1 instead of Feb. 28. Also, Murkowski has announced the pursuit of a permanent change to the U.S. law.
All of these are positive indicators for the 2022 season. So is the fact that large cruise ships started to operated and were able to continue operating with significant mitigation measures in place while the more-infectious delta variant of the novel coronavirus began spiking case numbers across the United States — including Alaska.
Therein lies the uncertainty for 2022. We continue to hope that the pandemic will soon become just a memory, opening the doors for us to welcome a robust return of cruise — and all other — visitors to Ketchikan. Again, time will tell how the pandemic actually plays out, and what other variables will rise or fall between now and next season.
All things considered, we’ve been grateful to see the Norwegian Encore and its fleet sisters in Ketchikan this season. We’re looking forward to seeing those ships and many others back here again soon.