In 2015, a fishing boat passes in front of the French mega-yacht L’Austral, anchored in front of Petersburg in the Wrangell Narrows. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

Petersburg, like other communities in Southeast Alaska, saw next to zero tourism last summer. But that might not be what’s in store this summer for all communities. Despite a Canadian ban on cruise ships, Petersburg could still see regular visits from small cruise lines this coming season.

Canada’s announcement will affect large cruise ships in the industry, which are mostly foreign-registered. Under U.S. law they must stop at one of Canada’s docks when heading to Alaska.

But for the town of Petersburg, which sees a lot of smaller cruise ships, it won’t have much impact.

“Fortunately, most of the small ships that come into Petersburg are US flagged vessels,” said Dave Berg, co-founder of the travel agency, Viking Travel in Petersburg. He and books tourist trips all over Alaska and helps coordinate the local cruise visits.

Shallow waters near Petersburg limit the size of ships and those smaller vessels are usually American. As of mid-February there were still seven cruise ships slated for 85 port calls in Petersburg between mid-May and mid-September.  They plan to carry between 45 -140 passengers each. However, Berg says, the ships probably won’t be traveling at their full capacity.

“Not only to allow for some social distancing but to reduce crew numbers on board and to have some cabins available to allow people to quarantine should they be having symptoms,” he said.

That’s the plan anyway. This time last year many cruises were scheduled but didn’t end up happening. The only cruise line that attempted a voyage in the region–Uncruise—canceled its trip after a passenger tested positive.

“Last year, we virtually had nothing,” Berg said.

He believes this summer will be better. Cruise lines are touting stricter protocols with some even requiring vaccinations for passengers and staff. Berg says those cruise lines cater to an older population who should be able to get vaccinated by the summer season. Also, he says vaccinations should have spread throughout the region’s residents.

“As we get closer to the season we are going to be more confident in that there won’t be a lot of COVID spread from visitors coming to the community,” Berg said.

One company that’s still in limbo as to whether they can make the season work is Victory Cruise Lines. They planned to debut a Southeast cruise running from Vancouver, BC to Sitka. Company representatives met with Petersburg’s borough administration Feb. 3 to talk about their mitigation plans, which included mandatory vaccinations. They were scheduled to have about 140 passengers spend most Saturdays in July and August in Petersburg. However, after the Canadian announcement the regional cruise it’s up in the air. In an emailed statement to KFSK, CEO John Waggoner said, “We continue working with government officials, fellow cruise lines as well as travel partners and look forward to returning to cruising when policies allow. ”  

Berg says there’s an effort to get Congress to grant temporary waivers to the Jones Act, which is the federal law requiring foreign vessels to stop in Canada.

“I’ve seen some letters; there’s definitely talk,” Berg said. “Our senators are researching and they’ve been approached by communities along the way that this is going to be devastating to the Alaska visitor industry.”

In the meantime, places like Petersburg that see smaller cruise ships and more independent travelers could expect some sort of tourist season. Berg says there’s a trend for family-sized groups looking to get away from the crowds during the pandemic.

“People are asking about those types of experiences rather than being on a bus that goes into Denali for instance, with a bus load of people,” he said. “Folks are looking for more opportunity to be able to be in a small group.”

Some towns like Petersburg also have COVID laws in place for visiting ships. Petersburg’s mandate requires captains to get pre-approval from the public health officer with the Emergency Operations Center before docking. The mandate is up for a possible extension at the end of February.

The Centers for Disease Control still recommends people avoid cruises worldwide.