Kodiak’s biggest summer cruise season ever was followed by its smallest ever.
In 2019, the Emerald Isle welcomed 29 cruise ships to the harbor, a record. The largest ship to ever dock here, the 965-foot, 90,600-ton Queen Elizabeth, came in the summer of 2019.
In 2020, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, none arrived. Sailings all over the world were canceled by the outbreak. By June, every one of the 18 ships that were scheduled to come to Kodiak had called off their arrivals.
Next summer is a long way off, but cruise companies are already planning their sailings. If cruising can take place next year, 14 ships are slated to arrive in Kodiak over the summer months, according to a tentative schedule released in late September.
It shows the first ship arriving May 1, with three others docking that month, then one in June, two in July, four in August, three in September and one in October.
Even in a normal year, the schedule isn’t finalized until around March, with boats hopping on or dropping off the list. But this year, with the future of COVID-19 up in the air — and all the government regulation and consumer confidence issues that go along with it — the schedule is likely to change even more.
“It’s always the proposed plan, it’s never set in stone. And this year it’s even more tentative,” Discover Kodiak Executive Director Aimee Williams said.
“When I saw that schedule, the thing that popped into my head was ‘Wouldn’t it be great if the world was calm enough that we could actually do something like that.’”
Kodiak is not quite as reliant on cruise ships as other Alaska communities. The Rock saw close to 25,000 visitors from cruise ships in 2019, while places like Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway each see more than 1 million every year.
“It’s obviously affecting us, but they had businesses that had to go out of business because there was just no one there,” Williams said of the other popular ports.
But losing last season still hurt. Businesses around the waterfront, in walking distance of the pier, took a hit. So did charter boat and tour companies. Museums felt it too, with far fewer visitors coming through their doors.
Not only that, but the city of Kodiak makes about $10,000 to $15,000 from every ship that docks at the harbor, Port Agent Nick Szabo said. Over the course of the season, that can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, money that evaporated last season.
Whether all those boats end up arriving in Kodiak will depend on whether people feel comfortable getting on them, and whether governments will allow them in the first place.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has levied a “no sail” order on the cruise ship industry since April. It was extended but will expire on Oct. 31.
The season depends on Canadian rules as well. Under the Jones Act, foreign ships cannot carry passengers between U.S. ports. That means many vessels depend on stopping in or departing from Canadian ports. With those ports closed as of now, the future is uncertain.
Then there’s the fact that cruise lines must convince customers to board in the first place.
Cruise ships, like the Diamond Princess vessel that harbored in a Japanese port at the start of the pandemic, were some of the first places where outbreaks took place. Nine people died and 712 were infected on the Diamond Princess. Convincing customers to come back will be a challenge.
“It’s just going to be a matter of if people feel safe to get on those boats yet or not,” Williams said.