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Passenger ship's arrival in Seattle marks return of cruise industry rocked by COVID

KOMO-TV Seattle logo KOMO-TV Seattle 6/30/2021 Matt Markovich, KOMO News reporter
Passenger ship's arrival in Seattle marks return of cruise industry rocked by COVID
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The arrival early Tuesday of Royal Caribbean’s Ovation of the Seas marked a milestone in the city’s shortened cruise season becoming the first of eight ships that will operate out of Seattle.

 Each vessel is slated to make 10 round trips to Alaska this summer, representing a return of the cruise industry to Western Washington after the onset of the COVID pandemic last year brought an immediate halt. 

In 2019, there were 220 dockings of cruise liners in Seattle but in 2020 that number dropped to zero.

“This vessel and others are going to be here for a couple weeks getting ready to sail because they have been out of service for quite a long time,” said Stephanie Jones Stebbins, maritime director for the Port of Seattle.

Caption: Cruise ships are poised to return to Washington state.

The crew of the Ovation is getting vaccinated and still must quarantine even though Washington's COVID-19 pandemic restrictions end Wednesday.

The vessel's capacity is 4,900 passengers but it will set sail with far fewer passengers because of strict social distancing guidelines imposed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Other remnants of the COVID era will also remain.

“In the terminals, our passengers will still be wearing masks,” Stebbins said. “You are going to have a specific window to arrive and it's very tightly controlled and orchestrated so we can process folks efficiently and so there won't be crowding.”

When boats are operating at normal capacity, the city of Seattle estimates each docking will infuse $4.2 million to the local economy. 

The port is paid on a per-passenger basis, but with restrictions on capacity and protocols to follow, it’s uncertain how well the cruise industry will recover this year.

A new cruise terminal that was had been planned for the northern third of Terminal 46, the closest to Pioneer Square and the stadiums, is now on hold permanently. 

“So, until we see how this market rebounds, the idea of building any more terminals is really off the table,” port Commissioner Fred Felleman said, adding that newer generation of larger ships will mean fewer sailings to Alaska may be needed. “You are putting more passengers on each vessel (and) that, too will delay the need for an additional terminal. And there is only so much space in Alaska."

The proposed new terminal would have been a 50/50 partnership between the port and a cruise line partner.

Said Felleman: “You want to have somebody with skin in the game, right, because they are going to be committed to making it work.”

Until a cruise partner ponies up a financial contribution that could exceed $100 million for a new terminal, the seven cruise brands with leases will share Seattle’s two terminals, at Terminal 91 near the Magnolia Bridge and Terminal 66 near Seattle’s aquarium.

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