In the wake of the introduction of PCR test requirements for all arriving passengers and the announcement that Canada’s major carriers were suspending flights to the Caribbean and Mexico, the travel industry was dealt another blow with the ban on pleasure craft and cruise vessels in Canadian waters officially extended until Feb. 28, 2022.
While Adventure Canada, which leads small-ship expeditions in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, was bracing for an extension, CEO Cedar Swan says it didn’t anticipate the length of the ban.
“We have approached the summer of 2021 with measured optimism,” Swan tells Travel Courier. “The rapid vaccine development provided a huge boost of hope. However, we have been realistic in our approach and how we have reimagined our program in the new COVID world. The safety of our guests, community partners, expedition team, and crew is of utmost priority. We were prepared for an extension of the cruise ban, however, anticipated it would be extended 45-60 days, and not a full year.”
Adventure Canada is currently in the midst of researching protocol and technology that supports safe and healthy marine travel, and expected to implement these new practices in the later half of the summer and into the fall. Instead, the family-owned adventure travel company cancelled its 2021 expedition season.
“The extension of the ban further challenges the travel industry. Canada has a seasonal marine tourism sector and it is hard on all involved, not just our clients—but our valued travel advisors, local economies that count on tourism and of course our staff,” she says. “We will continue to advocate for increased support for our highly affected sector. Now more than ever travel advisors need notable support to see the industry through these devastating times.”
Although Swan believes effective systems to increase the COVID safety of marine operations would have been developed prior to the opening of the cruise season in Canada, she says Adventure Canada supports policy that keeps health and safety at the forefront.
“We care deeply about the places we travel to and the people who travel with us… The research and development we are doing now lays the foundation for our COVID safe operation as we move forward,” she says. “Together with our partners, available supports and the commitment of our travel community we are able to withstand a full season cancellation in 2021 and offer a full suite of expeditions in 2022. It is a privilege to travel in the incredible regions that we do, and we are committed to doing so responsibly. By proceeding with the utmost caution, especially to ensure the safety of our host communities, we know that one day we will be able share our experiences—safely, conscientiously, and enjoyably.”
Hope for small operators stays afloat
It’s important to note that not all operators are affected by the extension. For example, small ships that don’t operate in Arctic coastal waters will still be able to operate.
“A lot of people don’t yet realize that there is a truly small-ship cruise industry that is not going to be affected by these specific restrictions,” Russell Markel, Founder, Owner & Operator of Outer Shores Expeditions, points out. “There are a host of Canadian-owned and operated small vessels out here on the BC coast, Outer Shores Expeditions included, that sail with between six and 24 passengers.”
Markel hopes to resume operations again at some point in 2021.
“We really pride ourselves on our minimal impacts and the close partnerships we have with the communities we visit,” he says. “As such, we will continue to work in partnership with those communities and we will be returning to them with our small groups, at their invitation, once we can do so safely and comfortably.”
In a similar boat is Maple Leaf Adventures, an ecotourism-based expedition company also operating on the BC coast.
“The ban does not affect us because what we do is more like a safari on a yacht, and we take only a dozen or so guests in nature for a week,” says Kevin Smith, CEO of Maple Leaf Adventures. “As a locally grown company, we designed our expeditions around the idea that small is beautiful – it allows us to hire British Columbians, source everything on the coast, always be in nature, and this year to be nimble and host only locals.”
UnCruise’s Alaska season sails ahead
Although the cruise ban news was devastating for the industry at large, Dan Blanchard, CEO of UnCruise Adventures, wants to get the message out that the cruise season in Alaska isn’t a complete write off.
US-flagged companies and vessels will still be able to operate as they have a right of free passage from Seattle to Alaska because of The Passenger Vessel Services Act.
“A lot of stuff that’s been in the press has been ‘Alaska cruise season closed’ and that inadvertently damaged us. There is sailing in Alaska this summer. We’re going to be there. The small US-flagged fleet is going to be there,” Blanchard said during a press briefing following the cruise ban extension. “We will be starting out on May 16 out of Juneau, that’s about a month later than we normally start. This season we have plans for six small ships with one in reserve in case the market comes back to a point where we can activate it.”
While he’s one of a select few companies that stands to benefit from the news, he says the decision will negatively impact many businesses and the local economy in Alaska.
“It’s devastating because so many of my friends own small businesses that are attached to the cruise industry that will now go through a second year of absolutely zero revenue,” he says. “I’m deeply saddened for my friends that work in the large ship, foreign ship operations. I’m deeply saddened for the Alaskan businesses that are out there that are definitely going to be hurt by this and I’m deeply saddened for the travel agent community. Here we are just getting back up on our feet and we get a big whammo.”
As an incentive for agents, UnCruise is offering savings of US$500 per cabin for clients who were booked on a big ship (proof is required) that is not sailing in 2021, in addition to an ongoing promotion for savings of US$600.
“We feel that if we can help the travel agent community by giving offers to guests that they may have booked on big ships, to help us succeed and to help other companies under US-flagged ships succeed, that’s a benefit to everyone.”
There is also a lot of opportunity for growth within the Canadian market, as less than 2% of UnCruise passengers are Canadian.