While Alaska vacations are on hold, would-be tourists find ways to support local businesses from afar

Juneau residents and tourism business operators in Juneau participated in a photo collage during what should have been the first week of the 2020 cruise ship season. (Image courtesy of Alaska Travel Industry Association Juneau Chapter)

This summer’s cruise ship season looks bleak for Juneau and other port communities.

But some would-be tourists are staying positive in spite of canceled trips, and looking for ways to support businesses struggling with cancellations.

In one video posted on the social media site TikTok, a user’s grandma stands in a sunny yard.

“We’re pretending like we’re on a cruise — we’re supposed to be on a cruise — and we’re cruising off the coast of Alaska,” she says. “The water’s really green. It looks remarkably like grass, almost like our backyard grass.”

She says she’s trying to spot a whale. The camera pans over to a man laying face down on the ground. He’s doing his best impression of a breaching humpback.

“Oh! I see one, I see a whale! He’s splashing the water all around!” she says as the man flaps his “flippers” and makes whale sounds.

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Almost 70% of this year’s cruise ship sailings have been canceled at this point, according to the industry.

That translates to about 800,000 passengers that won’t show up this summer. Even though many have had their trips rescheduled for next year, that’s still millions of dollars in lost revenue for port communities.

But members of Juneau’s visitor industry are trying to stay upbeat.

On what should have been the first day of the cruise ship season, some of them put together a photo collage of smiling faces circling the message, “We will wait for you.”

“We really just wanted to let future guests know, past guests know, everybody know, that we will wait. We’re still here,” said Liz Barlow, sales and marketing manager for Above and Beyond Alaska, a tour company in Juneau, and president of the local chapter of the Alaska Travel Industry Association.

“Understanding that the time is not right to travel, but when it is right, we will be here,” Barlow said.

She’s been encouraged by the feedback they’ve gotten from guests rescheduling their trips. Some of them are looking for ways to support businesses in the meantime.

“For guests who know they want to come to that destination, purchasing a gift card for those operators to help bring in additional income, but also that encouraging factor of, ‘We will be there. We know we’re coming, we just want to help support you now,’” Barlow said.

That includes Sharon Watkins Crockett from Ohio. Alaska’s been on her bucket list for years.

“I thought this was my opportunity to do it, and I better do it now because if I put it off, I’ll just continue putting it off,” Watkins Crockett said by phone last week.

She and her husband booked their trip almost a year ago and invited about 15 friends and family to join. If the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t happened, they all would have departed Seattle this Tuesday aboard a Carnival cruise ship.

Instead, their trip has been rescheduled for next year. They also rebooked the whale watching tour they had planned in Juneau. But Watkins Crockett said what she most looked forward to was people-watching and exploring the towns of Southeast Alaska.

“That’s what I enjoy doing, is seeing how other people live, instead of just always doing the touristy stuff,” she said.

Chocolate orca suckers from Alaskan Fudge Co. will have to do for Sharon Watkins Crockett and her family and friends for now. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Watkins Crockett)

When her trip got postponed, she started researching local businesses she could still support. She posted in community Facebook groups. Based on the feedback she got from locals, she decided to order a Christmas gift from Sam McGee’s in Ketchikan, chocolate mushrooms from Buckshot and Bobby Pins in Skagway and treats from Alaskan Fudge Co. in Juneau — including orca-shaped chocolates.

“Since we cannot do the whale watch, I went ahead and purchased orca whales for all my friends that were going so they can all have them on the day of what would have been our whale watch,” Watkins Crockett said.

She knows her purchases might not make a huge impact for these businesses in the long run, but it’s her way of trying to help.

“When I get there next year, I would like to be able to see everything that they have to offer,” she said. “Instead of … buildings (that) when you’re walking around and some, you know, shut down that’s been shut down for a year.”

Some business owners are already facing that reality.

But Barlow said Above and Beyond Alaska is seeing more interest from locals. They plan to reopen their kayak rental shop in Auke Bay later this month for Alaskans hoping to explore their own backyard.

“A way to get away for a weekend. You know, grab a kayak, go to an island and camp for a couple nights,” Barlow said. “Create your own getaway here in Juneau … your own staycation!”

With the weather warming up and the whales returning, she said there’s no better time for it.


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