Cruises may be suspended, but thousands of Holland America Line and Princess Cruises loyalists are still hoping to head to Alaska with their favorite tour operators this summer. And they’ll probably make it – just not on a ship.

Let’s call it a “dry cruise”.

Instead of gazing at glaciers and whales frolicking off the shores of Alaska’s southern coastal cities, you’ll cruise through the wilderness of Denali National Park and Preserve to spot bears, moose, and caribou. You’ll catch a glimpse of North America’s tallest peak and spend time in Anchorage with a boat tour to Portage Glacier. Instead of connecting the points on their itinerary via cruise ships with 5,000 passengers, they will cross the state on domed trains and encounter land-locked Fairbanks to learn more about life in the north.

All of this is made easier by Carnival’s Princess and Holland America cruise lines, which have recently been unable to do business in Alaska. Cabotage laws from the late 19th century required foreign-flagged ships like Carnival to call at an international port on every US voyage – making a trip to Alaska impossible without Canada’s cooperation. And in February, the country banned cruise ships from its ports until March 2022.

Enter the Carnival Shore Excursions. They intend to save business for two sister brands that together account for nearly half of the lucrative Alaskan cruise market – a record 1.4 million passengers were forecast for the summer before the pandemic brought that number to zero. In 2019, more than half of the nearly 2.5 million people who visited Alaska were on ships.

Dry cruises aren’t as radical as they sound. Carnival is perhaps best known for its ships, but in Alaska it also owns the Gray Line Alaska ground operations, including a fleet of luxury coaches, 20 private railroad cars (pulled by Alaska Railroad trains), and 10 hotels.

In a normal year, many of these facilities would attract passengers looking to extend their vacation to explore Alaska’s interior. Typically it’s the side business; now it’s the only one.

“The idea saves part of the season,” says Charlie Ball, who heads Alaska operations for the two cruise lines. “There are a lot of hand-winder who want to go to Alaska.”

The cruise lines are opening two seasonal lodges for the trips, initially with a capacity of 25% to 28% to enable social distancing. Near the entrance to Denali National Park is the 60-acre McKinley Chalet Resort riverside complex, which typically accommodates nearly 1,200 guests (mostly Holland America Line cruisers). Further south, on the Kenai River in Copper Landing, is the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge, whose 86 bungalow-style rooms are equipped with wood stoves and private balconies. Both properties are considered prime by Alaska standards.

From these home bases – along with Holland America Line’s 400 room Westmark Fairbanks Hotel and the independent Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage – the cruise lines can provide revenue streams to local tourism businesses such as flightseeing and rafting operators. Among them there is even a local cruise company called Riverboat Discovery, which takes tourist, yet popular, four-hour cruises on the Chena and Tanana Rivers from their three-decked stern wheel.

The goal is to expand these tour options to the most financially hard hit communities in the southeast, including Juneau and Skagway, where Holland America Line has another hotel. “We’re still looking at this,” says Ball. “We have a great ability to scale this business pretty quickly.”

Another summer without tourism would be disastrous for Alaska’s local communities.

The economic loss is estimated at nearly $ 1 billion from spending on missed cruise passengers and taxes and fees paid by cruise companies to state and local communities. This large number has an even greater impact. In the tourism-dependent district of Denali, for example, the bed tax in hotels pays a large part of the school system’s budget.

While it’s unclear how much of that money can be saved with land tours, the trips offer a minimum guarantee for locals: hundreds of new jobs available. Probably in the mix will be drivers who take passengers in coaches and teachers who have become tour guides to the shuttle.

Carnival is also committed to maintaining its 600+ full-time Alaskan workers who were temporarily on leave during last year’s pandemic. “A decent mechanic in Alaska can walk down the street and get a new job in five days,” says Ball, adding that a loss of such talent would damage the company’s “intellectual capital.”

The exact number of employees this year will depend on sales, he adds, conceding that this will likely be a full order of magnitude below normal years. “The model should start small and hope for growth.”

There are Hail Mary efforts to bring cruises back this season. If passed, the laws tabled by members of the state’s congressional delegation in early March would allow temporary exemptions from the currently banned cabotage laws. But even then, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would have to open ships for sailing – which seems to be a distant prospect so far.

“We have seen a double-digit decline in employment in the Southeast [Alaska] and a nationwide sales decline of more than 30%, “Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in a statement.” The lack of another cruise season would only compound the economic consequences that have been devastating for so many families. “

Whether on land or water, cruise lines must deal with Covid-19 protocols before the season begins.

It is planned to have 100% of the staff vaccinated. Ball says unvaccinated guests will be welcome, but all guests – regardless of antibodies – are asked to mask themselves and maintain social distance. Thorough cleaning procedures will be in place, coaches and restaurants will operate at reduced capacity, and a local health company will run Covid tests for any visitor who arrives without negative PCR results or develops symptoms.

According to Ball, Carnival was confident that interest in its land program was based on preview discussions with travel agents and tour operators. As the bookings opened earlier this month, the company is “very happy” with the first response.

“There are people who want to get out and travel,” says Ball, adding that Alaska has both vast areas and a high vaccination rate for local residents. “If not Alaska this summer, where then?”

The Princess Cruise Lines Island Princess cruise ship passes in front of the Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay, Alaska on July 12, 2019. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg Photo by Tim Rue.

A pedestrian walks through Overstreet Park in Juneau, Alaska on July 22, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg Photo by Meg Roussos.