Skagway businesses try to plan for an uncertain summer cruise season

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 in 2016. (Photo by Emily Files/KHNS)

Earlier in May, big cruise ship companies got the green light to resume sailings to Alaska, after losing last summer’s tourism season to the pandemic.

That’s good news for communities like Skagway, where cruise-based tourism is critical for the local economy. The town saw a 95% drop in overall revenue due to the pandemic. Businesses are facing tough decisions. Many are unsure how to operate for what looks like a short cruise season in 2021.

The Red Onion Saloon is one of Skagway’s iconic Gold Rush-era businesses. The historic brothel and saloon has been open since late April serving pizzas, drinks and occasional live music to Skagway locals. In a typical year, they’d be packed at lunchtime with hungry tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of a rogue garter. But right now the barstools sit largely unoccupied during the day.

With the news of cruise ships on the horizon, Operations Manager Liz Lavoie says the Red Onion is looking to ramp up staff for kitchen, bar and tour operations.

“In the last two years, everybody has been making plans by the week and by week’s end, throwing those plans away, and starting the next week making more. We’re really excited, and we will be staffing up,” Lavoie said.

Dustin Craney, the owner of Sockeye Cycle, says his business is fairly lucky compared to others because they’d already opened up shop in Haines and in Skagway, and so most of their fixed costs are already addressed.

“We were really focused on our multi-day tour operations and getting independent travelers to the Upper Lynn Canal,” Craney said. “And so we’ve had a good response for that and had a lot of bookings and so we’re feeling fortunate that we were already operating and had all the insurance set up and all the permits are in place.”

Craney also said he won’t have to add much staff either. They’re one of the lucky ones.

Chilkoot Charters typically does day trips by bus bound for the Yukon Territory of Canada, but with the border still closed due to the Canadian pandemic response, owner Stacy Gould says they won’t be able to operate for the shortened season.

“As far as our company is concerned all of our tours, except for one, cross that international border, so we’re still deadlocked,” Gould said.

Chris and Kathy Wassman, owners of Taiya River Arts, sold their home at the beginning of the pandemic and moved to Oregon. Their shop on Skagway’s main drag Broadway Street is already open for the season, even without ownership being present, but it’s open in a limited capacity.

Kathy Wassman says they won’t make the final decision about whether to come work at the shop and expand hours until a concrete calendar of cruise ship arrivals is published.

“We really do need that last little confirmation that this is happening, (whether) it’s going to be worth finding housing and you know, it’s just a lot,” she said.

As with most retail shops in town, sourcing products is going to be difficult. Usually ordering is done months in advance, but without a solid schedule, that’s not an option this year. Many retail stores have some products leftover from 2019, and with most orders halted in 2020, many shops will have to rely on existing inventory.

Judd Davis owns and operates Starfire restaurant in Skagway. They serve mostly Thai food. Davis says their menu isn’t geared toward the typical tourist visiting Alaska, so they just aren’t sure how to proceed.

“I have no idea when ships are coming. I don’t know if tour companies are going to open. I don’t know if, for Starfire specifically, I don’t know if crew members are going to be let off the ships which is my bread and butter for lunches,” Davis said.

Davis did say the restaurants in town will try to work together to develop a plan to feed the people that do come. Some establishments will be open in the evening for locals and whatever seasonal employees are in town, and others will try to tackle what may be a busy lunch rush.

Some cruise lines have started accepting bookings for as early as late July, but port agreements have yet to be finalized with the municipality of Skagway for any of them; leaving business owners in limbo as they attempt to plan for an uncertain summer season.

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