Big-ship cruises to Alaska finally resume today after a nearly 2-year hiatus

Jul 19, 2021

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The unprecedented, nearly-two-year hiatus for big-ship Alaska cruises finally ends today.

In a watershed moment for the comeback of cruising, Royal Caribbean late Monday will kick off the first voyage to the “last frontier” state by a major cruise ship since the last week of September in 2019.

The seven-night sailing on the line’s 2,143-passenger Serenade of the Seas will begin in Seattle and feature calls at the Alaskan ports of Sitka, Icy Strait Point, Juneau and Ketchikan.

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Royal Caribbean will be just the first of more than half a dozen major cruise lines to restart sailings to Alaska in the coming weeks — all out of Seattle.

The sailings are restarting just eight weeks after President Joe Biden signed legislation that temporarily allows foreign-flagged cruise ships such as those operated by Royal Caribbean to sail to Alaska without stopping in Canada, as is normally required by law.

The legislation, called the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act, was necessary for Royal Caribbean and other major lines to restart cruises to Alaska because Canada currently is closed to cruise ships due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alaskan legislators who pushed for the waiver have said the restart of big-ship Alaska cruising is critical to the economic survival of Alaskan tourist towns such as Juneau and Ketchikan, which rely on cruise ships to deliver more than 90% of their visitors in a normal year.

Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas sailing in Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

Tourism is a huge part of the Alaskan economy, and cruise ships play an outsized role in bringing tourists to the state. In a typical year, Alaska draws about 2 million visitors. Of those, nearly 1.2 million — or almost 60% — come by cruise ship.

The restart of cruising to Alaska comes just weeks after cruises finally restarted in the Caribbean after a 15-month hiatus brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Cruising is ramping up in Europe, too.

The three regions are the biggest for cruising around the world.

Cruising around the world halted in March 2020 after the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic, and most cruise vessels around the world have yet to restart operations.

Related: The ultimate guide to Royal Caribbean

In sailing to Alaska out of Seattle, Serenade of the Seas becomes just the second Royal Caribbean ship to resume voyages from a U.S. port since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Royal Caribbean operated its first sailing out of a U.S. port in 16 months on July 2, when its 3,926-passenger Freedom of the Seas resumed trips out of Miami. The voyage came less than a week after Celebrity Cruises‘ Celebrity Edge became the first major cruise vessel from any line to sail from a U.S. port in 16 months.

While many major U.S. vacation destinations on land, including Disney World near Orlando, reopened to tourists many months ago, cruise lines have been delayed in restarting sailings in U.S. waters due to restrictions implemented by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Until recently, the CDC had blocked all but the smallest cruise ships from sailing in U.S. waters. This effectively shut down big-ship cruising in not just U.S. waters but also all of North America. Most big cruise ships that sail in North America use U.S. ports as a base.   

Like all the lines in the midst of restarting departures, Royal Caribbean is implementing a long list of new health and safety measures designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 onboard Serenade of the Seas.

The new measures include a requirement that all passengers 16 years of age and older show proof of vaccination before boarding. Passengers under the age of 16 can sail without a COVID-19 vaccine, but they will be required to take a PCR test for COVID-19 when checking in at the terminal and an antigen test for COVID-19 onboard the ship near the end of the voyage.

Passengers under the age of 2 are exempt from the testing requirements.

In addition, all passengers ages 2 and up, including vaccinated passengers, will have to wear masks on board the ship when in interior areas, and the ship’s venues will be configured for social distancing. Some ship venues will be open to vaccinated passengers only.

Travel parties with unvaccinated passengers will not be able to leave the ship in ports unless they purchase a local tour through Royal Caribbean.

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Featured image of courtesy of Royal Caribbean.

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