Juneau tourism businesses cautiously optimistic about upcoming season — with or without cruise ships

A row of booths used by waterfront vendors during the summer tourist season sit empty on Saturday, March 21, 2020 in Juneau, Alaska. Juneau's Docks and Harbors Board approved a refund fees to use these booths as the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated Alaska's tourism season. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)
A row of booths used by waterfront vendors during the summer tourist season sit empty on Saturday, March 21, 2020 in Juneau, Alaska. Juneau’s Docks and Harbors Board approved a refund fees to use these booths as the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated Alaska’s tourism season. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Three and a half weeks may not seem like a big deal in pandemic times but for local businesses that depend on tourism in Juneau, it could make or break the season.

The Juneau Assembly recently loosened travel restrictions starting May 1. After the pandemic devastated business for last year’s tourism season, Liz Perry at Travel Juneau said the changes mean a lot for local businesses that depend on tourists.

“That was the big hurdle for us,” Perry said. “With that being lifted, we’re seeing some daylight.”

At last week’s regular assembly meeting, assembly member Wade Bryson recommended rolling back emergency guidelines to May 1 instead of May 26. He said those three and a half weeks could make a big impact.

“On not only businesses, but tax revenue from the sales tax that is created from it, we need to start on the right foot, adding three and a half weeks to what is going to be a very dismal tourism year can make a very positive difference,” Bryson said.

But assembly member Michelle Hale objected on the basis of safety, especially with the threat of other COVID-19 variants. Even if most residents are eventually fully vaccinated.

“My concern is that we get it almost to the finish line. And then we relax our restrictions and with these variants, for example, we could get ourselves very close and then be in a very serious situation,” Hale said.

Meanwhile, Perry at Travel Juneau said she doesn’t know how much business to expect, but she sees an increase in confidence for consumers who want to book flights.

Although, not everyone is so optimistic. The lifting of restrictions will likely be helpful for businesses that serve independent travelers, but those that depend on cruise ships are still losing out.

Serene Hutchinson is the general manager for Juneau Whale Watching Tours.

She said 90% of her business typically comes from cruise ship passengers. And with the season on hold while Canada’s waters are closed to cruise ships, she’s already refunded thousands of dollars.

“I’m not interested in giving any more refunds. And to be honest, consumers aren’t interested in booking anything that they may have to try to get a refund for. Everyone’s really burned out on that,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson said if some businesses are going to survive the season, they’ll need to aggressively market to independent travelers. She said that even if every hotel and short-term rental was booked to capacity for five months, it would still only be a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of visitors Juneau is used to getting.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for Hutchinson. One-fifth of Juneau residents have already been fully vaccinated and she said that’s a good sign. So she’s still holding out for some business.

“To independent travelers, I say, ‘Come in the water’s fine. Let’s go whale watching.’” Hutchinson said. “To my neighbors. I say, ‘You know, trust us, trust us to do our best to look out for our home and our neighbors, while also showing visitors a great, safe time.’”

Just like other local businesses, Hutchinson is cautiously optimistic about what visitors she can get. Cruise ships or not.

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