Juneau’s cruise ship docks are eerily quiet as the postponed season doesn’t get started

There are supposed to be lines of people at dozens of booths like this on April 23, signing up for whale watching or gold panning tours. The cruise ship season was supposed to begin, but sailings have been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Jennifer Pemberton/KTOO)

This week was supposed to herald the arrival of the first cruise ship to Juneau. But no cruise ships came. And they’re not coming for awhile. This isn’t just an economic blow to the town. It’s made the place completely unfamiliar in many ways.

The port schedule still says that the Carnival Spirit should have arrived at 7 a.m. on Friday. There could have been more than 2,000 people in Juneau for eight hours, spending money. And they would have been the first of nearly 1.5 million cruise ship visitors Juneau was expecting to see this summer.

Last year there was fanfare when the first ship of the season showed up. It was sunny and there were Native drummers there to greet passengers and a whole team of helpful people from the visitor’s bureau, steering people toward the best hikes or local shops.

This year, it’s gray and soggy and completely dead at the cruise ship docks.

There were supposed to be lines of people at dozens of booths signing up for whale watching or gold panning tours. The stores were supposed to be open. The Mount Roberts Tram was supposed to be hauling people up the mountain. There were supposed to be crowds of people from all over the world speaking a bunch of different languages.

But there was literally no one there. And nothing was happening.

The industry has been dealt a series of blows this year in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. There have been port closures in Canada and Seattle and a federal no sail order. Not to mention the horror stories from several outbreaks of this very disease on cruise ships in the past 2 months.

So far, about 360 sailings that would have come through Juneau have been cancelled, which means that already 700,000 fewer passengers are coming during what was supposed to be a blockbuster year. There are sailings on the books starting in July, but there’s no guarantee that those will happen.

Juneau’s cruise ship docks are empty on April 23. The cruise ship season was supposed to begin, but sailings have been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Jennifer Pemberton/KTOO)

Juneau City Manager Rorie Watt has worked for 20 years on development of the city’s waterfront. He regularly goes out and checks on the construction projects on the waterfront that should be wrapping up soon ahead of the ships coming.

“There’s always a little bit of a fire drill to wrap things up,” he said. “Except everyone’s got all the time in the world right now and the waterfront is empty. And it feels sort of normal, but also strange, because it’s different.”

Between the loss of cruise ship taxes and local sales taxes, Juneau’s in a world of hurt for revenue this year.

Not that long ago, the city was in a totally different kind of hard spot. It was trying to tackle some of the problems that come with a million and a half visitors.

“It’s stunning how fast we went from trying to figure out what to do with too many tourists to not having any tourists at all — a totally different kind of problem.” Watt said. “On the one hand, too many people causes a social problem and not enough tourists causes an economic problem.”

Liz Perry runs Travel Juneau, which markets the city for conferences and non-cruise ship travelers.

With the governor’s health mandate that requires a 14-day quarantine for anyone who comes from out of state, Juneau probably won’t see any of those folks anytime soon.

“It’s not the right time to really be rolling out a big campaign to get people to travel because we’re not sure again when that’s going to be possible,” Perry said. “We have to be ready as an industry and the community has to be ready to welcome those folks back in.”

Even though independent travelers spend more per person when they come to Juneau than someone who gets off a cruise ship, the city just doesn’t have the capacity to backfill the kind of loss it’s facing now.

But Perry does see independent travel as a bright spot.

“It’s a real opportunity for us to really invite in — in a big, big way — our independent travelers and really show Juneau off as the cruise lines are recovering from the pandemic,” she said.

There’s no one to interview at the docks on Thursday. The shops are boarded up. The tram is under construction. Parts of the waterfront are under construction, too. The public bathrooms are locked. The trashcans are wrapped in plastic so you can’t use them.

It feels like no one is getting ready for anything to start anytime soon. Which is not an unfamiliar feeling for most people in most places right now.

Jennifer Pemberton

Managing Editor, KTOO

I bring stories from the community into the KTOO newsroom so that all of our reporting matters. I want to hear my community’s struggles and its wins reflected in our coverage. Does our reporting reflect your experience in Juneau?

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