‘We can’t cry in our pillows’: Skagway officials unveil 2021 cruise season backup plan

Quiet streets in Skagway. September 2020 (Claire Stremple/KHNS)

Without diplomatic intervention, large cruise ships aren’t coming to Alaska this year. Canada closed its waters to foreign ships with more than 250 passengers. That means Alaska’s cruise season for 2021 is effectively canceled. On Wednesday night, Skagway officials unveiled their backup plan.

“We can’t cry in our pillow that we’re not a cruise ship destination this year. We need to be excited about what we are,” said Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata. He told the virtual town hall that 2021 will be about survival.

He acknowledged the summer season, usually worth an estimated $160 million, is going to be radically different. But he said Skagway is going to make it through another year.

“We can maintain our population, maintain our facilities, and be ready to be forward facing when the cruise ship industry rebounds in 2022. But it’s an all hands on deck kind of moment. This is an opportunity for everybody to get excited about who and what we are for this 2021 season,” Cremata said.

Cremata said the Visitor Department’s strategy is going to depend on three main types of tourists: regional travelers, small cruise ship passengers and independent tourists from the Lower 48.

Officials are calling the strategy “Save Our Skagway” or SOS. The plan is predicated on the premise that even if tourism is reduced, Skagway’s a pretty great place to visit. And without throngs of people on the streets, it may actually be more enjoyable.

“We know what we offer here and we shouldn’t be shy about bragging about it. The people who come off the cruise ships, even in the most chaotic Wednesday when there are 15,000 people running around town, will all tell you that we are their favorite destination. And so we can market that,” Cremata said.

Cremata asked residents to reach out to friends, family and former Skagway residents — and ask them to come visit. He said more than a dozen of his friends have already committed to a visit. The goal is that these independent travelers will stay in hotels, eat at restaurants, and buy some souvenirs — and buoy the economy.

The plan hinges on participation from the business community. Tourism Director Cody Jennings outlined some of the possibilities.

“We’re in the works of two potential videos for Skagway to kick off some promotions. I’ve spoken with the ferry about potential partnership opportunities to help bring our regional, you know, bring regional travelers here … And if anybody has ideas, we want to talk about them with you,” she said.

Resident Jennifer Ozuzun and her husband are both business owners in Skagway. She said the town needs to pull together to stay relevant to the semi-dormant tourism industry.

“If we don’t keep ourselves on the map, forget about 2022. And that’s just the realness of where we’re at is like we have to make what we have right now work,” Ozuzun said. “If we don’t have some type of traffic through here, we’re gonna have to leave. And that is a hard pill to swallow. But it’s the reality because we can’t just sit here and suffer.”

Municipal officials say everyone should be involved in this process. Mayor Cremata said most places in the world don’t have a captive cruise ship clientele. Many places are also not as remote as Skagway. Regardless, Skagway and its businesses are going to have to start marketing and reaching out to consumers in a new way.

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