Tour buses line up as the first passengers of the year walk down the Carnival Spirit’s ramp to Juneau’s Princess dock.
Excursion greeters hold up signs to attract confused customers, sending them down the line to their tours.
“Glacier Wildlife Tour,” calls out a guide.
“Hey-oo, welcome, come on board,” adds the driver.
Those not already booked on a tour walk on by gift shops to a row of kiosks.
There, salesman Khalid Habash of Last Chance Tours is surrounded by signs for trips and experiences.
“We offer a variety of shore excursions. For example, whale-watching, helicopter tours, seaplane tours, zip-lining, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, salmon bakes, pretty much anything you can do in Juneau,” he says.
That’s the menu for many on board the Spirit, which can hold more than 3,500 passengers and crew. It’s one of the first large cruise ships to sail the Inside Passage this season.
Numbers vary from town to town. The capital city will see its passenger count climb to almost a million this season.
Lorene Palmer of Juneau’s Convention and Visitors Bureau says that’s encouraging.
“2012 is looking better than last year. With the addition of one of Princess’ ships we’ve added about 48,000 passengers. That’s a pretty big jump over last year,” Palmer says.
It’s coming close to the record number of a few years ago, when a little more than a million people sailed these waters.
Palmer says some of this year’s passengers are part of a growing trend of extended family travel.
“So Alaska is a very popular place to come to celebrate a milestone event, whether it’s an anniversary, family reunion, a 50th birthday. Any of those things tend to be a real motivator to bring family and friends to Alaska,” Palmer says.
She says cruise ships are also bringing younger passengers, many looking for hands-on experiences, such as kayaking or hiking.
“We just added a paddle-boarding experience here in Juneau. So we’re starting to see more and more adventure-based travel,” Palmer says.
That’s a trend that’s been going on for several years.
“Our baby boomer generation is pursuing an active lifestyle. And so, you’re seeing that translated to the shore excursions and tour operations,” Palmer says.
Cruise lines like to fill their ships, so they’ll deeply discount tickets if demand is low.
Ron Peck of the Alaska Travel Industry Association says that’s not so much the case this year. But he does note some passengers’ purchasing time is changing.
“In some cases, they’re much more cost-conscious so they’re looking for those deals. In other cases they’re just doing a lot more research on their own. In some cases they’re delaying their bookings, but we still get a pretty good feel early on,” Peck says.
Cruise ship traffic has jumped since the 1990s, inspiring business-people to open new gift shops and excursions.
Peck says some didn’t make it through the drop of the past few years.
“If anything we’ve seen a little tightening of the belt and some operators not necessarily making it, just because there’s been a reduction of overall cruise visitors,” he says.
“So I’m not sure I’d say we’ve seen an increase. I would say we’ve seen an increase in the type of experience but not necessarily in the number of cruise visitors. “
Back at the dock, Khalid Habash watches as the first wave of passengers heads toward his kiosk. He laughs as he wonders what questions they’ll have this year.
“A lot of people asked me what the sea level is, which is pretty funny. A lot of people ask me if they can see whales from the helicopter trip, which is a pretty interesting question,” he says. “A lot of people ask me if the bald eagles in these trees are real or not.”
Habash, originally from Maine, says he enjoys the work. Like many on the docks, he puts in long hours.
And, like his customers, he uses his savings to travel.