Skagway, Alaska, feeling pain of Canada’s ban on cruise ships

Canada’s recent decision to extend the ban on cruise ships with more than 100 people on board until 2022 will affect the city of Skagway, Alaska, pictured above, which relies heavily on tourism from cruise ships for its economic well-being. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)
Canada’s decision on Feb. 4 to extend a ban on large cruise ships until 2022 is not playing well in Skagway, Alaska.

The small city with a population of a little more than 1,000 people relies heavily on tourism from cruise ships between May and September for its economic well being.

The decision, which extends a ban on ships with more than 100 passengers, will prevent most cruise ships from docking in Alaska. Most large ships that visit the state are registered in foreign countries and U.S. law prohibits them from sailing between two American ports without stopping at a foreign port in between. Cruise ships that head for Alaska either start the trip from Canada or stop there on the way.

“For a long time I’ve been saying the elephant in the room is the [U.S.] Passenger Vessel Services Act and the elephant just broke all the china. It is what it is,” said Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata.

He said the decision is a critical blow to local business owners.

“A lot of the businesses were looking at no revenue for 18 months and now looking at 30 months with no revenue, other than what we can drum up independently here over the next season from May to September,” he said.

“The reality of the situation is that it’s more bad news in a pretty bleak situation overall.”

Backup plan

However, Cremata said the city has been working on a backup plan for a few months that focuses on the people who live in the community year-round.

“We’re ready to implement that so that’s where we’re going to focus our energy,” he said.

He said they’re going to do everything they can to keep those people in Skagway.

“And the way you do that is with jobs,” he said. “So our focus is on making sure people are employed and that we can put together as many jobs as possible over the next 18 months or so.”

He says he’s convinced this doesn’t spell the end of the historic Alaskan city but one local business owner isn’t so sure.

“2022 promises to be a great summer,” said Karla Ray, a Skagway resident who owns four businesses.

“But can we make it until then? I don’t know.”

She said she and her daughter know 10 people who have left or are getting ready to leave Skagway.

“And, you know, in a small town, that’s a lot,” said Ray.

She said she’s survived so far because she was able to get two government loans during the pandemic and she’s also remortgaged her house, which after 40 years, she had almost paid off.

2022 promises to be a great summer but can we make it until then? I don’t know.– Karla Ray, Skagway business owner

She said a lot of people in the community were disheartened by the Canadian government’s decision.

“There’s a lot of people really, really upset today. It’s been kind of a rough day,” said Ray.

“We’re in a town where it’s not like there’s side hustles to go get or new businesses to start or ideas to do. I mean, it’s a really small town and there isn’t, you know, places that people can go get another job.”

She said when the border between Canada and the U.S. finally re-opens, “I’m not sure what’s going to be left of Skagway.”

Skagway bubble?

Cremata is more optimistic.

“Skagway has gone through more difficult times than this,” he said. “And we will figure out a way to get through it.”

He says people in his city are going to reach herd immunity here well before May.

“So we’re going to have a safe place for people to come and we’re going to market ourselves as such,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ray is hoping that at some point, the cruise ships will be allowed to come back to Skagway with people who have vaccination cards, “or something like that.”

“You could come to a town where everybody will be vaccinated, you know, so our town could be almost like a bubble,” she said.

– With files from Claudiane Samson
Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canada bans pleasure craft and cruise ships in its Arctic waters for another year, Radio Canada International

Finland: How not to promote Arctic tourism, Eye on the Arctic

Greenland: Greenland changes COVID-19 rules for travellers from Iceland, Faroe Islands, Eye on the Arctic

Russia: All Russia’s North Pole cruises rescheduled to 2021, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Summer tourism recovery is slow going in Sweden, Yle News

United States: Airline shutdown creates new challenges for rural Alaska, The Associated Press

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