This pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time for Alaska’s tourism businesses

Cruise ship visitors browse Skagway shops on a May afternoon. (Photo by Emily Files/KHNS)
Cruise ship visitors browse Skagway shops on a May afternoon. (Photo by Emily Files/KHNS)

Alaska had planned for a record-number of cruise ship passengers this year. But then came the coronavirus pandemic. Travel halted. Ports closed. And now, more than half of the scheduled sailings to Alaska have been called off.

The impacts are widespread. And painful.

Taylor Vidic thought she’d be in Skagway by now, preparing for the cruise ship passengers to arrive.

“I was planning on taking a ferry there to get ready for my first day of work tomorrow at the Red Onion Saloon and Brothel Museum,” she said.

But instead, the 26-year-old is at home in Juneau, out of work and reading announcement after announcement about the coronavirus pandemic canceling cruises, closing ports and shutting down businesses.

“There’s kind of a cloud hanging above you,” Vidic said. “You are waiting for these announcements to come out and then when they finally do it’s, it’s kind of like you feel the wave hit.”

Vidic says the recent cancellations from the Holland America Line and Princess Cruises feel like just another painful wave. The major cruise lines have called off most of their sailings to Alaska, and won’t run lodges or sightseeings buses this summer.

At this point, Vidic says she has no idea when she’ll return to work in Skagway. She applied for unemployment. Like many of her co-workers, she earns the bulk of her income during the tourist season.

“I think we’re all kind of you know, hoping for the best but expecting the worst,” she said. “There might be ships come like July, but I’m not holding my breath on that with how the world has been looking as of late.”

So far, at least 360 sailings to Alaska — about 60% — have been canceled. And it means about 700,000 fewer visitors will come to the state this summer. It’s a loss of thousands of seasonal jobs, and hundreds of millions of dollars in passenger spending, plus money coming from taxes and the cruise line itself.

And those dollars are spread wide — they flow to hotels, museums, coffee shops, restaurants, flightseeing, sled dog kennels, gas stations, souvenir shops and so much more.

In interviews, Alaskans who work in or with the tourism industry reached for words to describe the impact of the cruise cancellations so far this year:

“Devastating,” some said.

“Unprecedented.”

“Scary.”

“A blow that’s bringing a pillar of the state’s economy to its knees.”

“I believe it’s over half of the tourists that come to the state every year come on cruise ships. And so, yeah, just that the loss of that is heavy,” said Jason Bickling, the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Seward, which normally welcomes its first cruise ship in early May and its last one at the end of September.

Now, it’s erasing May and June sailings from its calendar, and waiting to learn more. Bickling says it’s hard to remain hopeful that many cruise ships will come in late summer. And, even if they do, who will be onboard?

“It’ll just be kind of a wait and see game to see if some of those other cruise ship companies decide they’re able to operate this summer,” he said.

Joshua Howes, the president of Premier Alaska Tours, is also wrestling with the sudden impacts of the coronavirus. His Anchorage-based company provides transportation services to tour operators and cruise lines, moving passengers by bus and train around the state.

Early this year, he says, the company was preparing for a busy summer. They were finalizing menus for the train and orders for luggage tags. They planned to hire back hundreds of employees for the summer. Then, everything changed.

“We’re now kind of at a point where we’re putting the company almost on life support at this point,” Howes said.

Now, the company is down to about 15 workers, furloughing some year-round employees and not hiring more than 500 seasonal staff.

In Howes 20 years at the company, he says he’s never experienced a blow to business like this. He’s concerned about other companies too, and whether they’ll survive it.

“There are so many many small companies out there that I just worry about whether or not they’ll be able to go from September of 2019 to potentially May of 2021 with zero revenue,” he said.

State economists say the timing of the coronavirus in the United States is an extra punch for Alaska, hitting the state as it prepares for the summer, when its biggest chunk of economic activity usually takes place.

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