Cruise lines are predicting a record year, but Southeast Alaska is proceeding with caution

A view from above of a large cruise ship docked in Juneau with Douglas Island in the background
A view from the Goldbelt Tram of a Princess Cruises ship docked in Juneau on Aug. 31, 2021. (Photo by Jennifer Pemberton/KTOO)

Some cruise lines are making bold predictions about a record breaking year for tourism in Southeast Alaska. After two years of pandemic, Alaskans are more cautious.

If you ask the cruise ship industry, this summer is going to be big.

“Really our biggest and best Alaska season yet,” said Josh Carroll, a VP with the Royal Caribbean Group, on a videoconference with Alaska businesses and reporters last week.

“We have, as a Royal Caribbean group, and as an industry, we have the most ships deployed to Alaska that we’ve ever had in our history,” Carroll said.

Carroll said Royal Caribbean is getting more bookings now than they were at this time in 2019, though he wouldn’t share the numbers. He attributed the interest in Alaska to a push towards domestic travel this year.

But he added a serious caveat.

“That’s assuming the protocols allow the the operation of that volume,” he said.

Holly Johnson, who has run Wings Airways and Taku Glacier Lodge in Juneau for the last two decades, said she loves the optimism, but she hasn’t been hearing that from other cruise lines.

She said she also got great pre-season bookings this year. She hasn’t operated for the last two seasons. Even though some cruise ships came in 2021, it was only about a tenth of pre-pandemic crowds.

“We’ve just been sort of holding things together with duct tape, as you do up here,” she said.

Johnson’s pre-season booking are just one indicator of the season to come. She won’t know for sure how many visitors she gets until they’re on the dock. But she has to decide how many planes to insure and how many people to hire now. She says that feels like a gamble while her coffers are empty.

“It’s hard. It’s terrifying. And people are making real business decisions at this point with a lot of hope, but with no concrete knowledge of what the season is going to look like,” Johnson said.

She says she plans to operate at about 60% this season — with the potential to increase if there’s demand. She called it a rebuilding year.

Dennis McDonnell with Alaska Coach Tours isn’t ramping up to full speed either.

“We’re hopeful and expecting a season, probably 20 to 30% better than it was last year,” he said.

Southeast governments need to predict how many tourists will visit, too. In Juneau, Tourism Manager Alexandra Pierce says city leaders plan to make $13 million dollars on cruise ship passenger head taxes. It will take a million passengers to make that, which is close to pre-pandemic numbers.

Pierce says that’s the city’s best educated guess. But Juneau has enough savings that they can afford to be wrong.

“I don’t know what capacity the ships will come at,” Pierce said. “But I think after a year of no cruise season, and last year with an extremely, extremely limited one, this will feel like business as usual for Juneau residents.”

About one hundred miles north, Skagway can’t afford to be as wrong. The city’s economic model is built on tourism, and the last two years took a bit out of savings.

Mayor Andrew Cremata says his municipality is budgeting for only half the season they saw in 2019. He said the municipality is being “prudent.” There are two major concerns on his mind for this summer. One is labor — fewer than 1,000 people live in Skagway. In a typical cruise season, that number at least doubles with seasonal workers.

“There are a lack of workers all over the nation,” Cremata said. “We’re gonna have to get people to come up to Alaska after having essentially two years with little to no business.”

He says it’s extra tough because most seasonal workers make a low wage.

The other concern is Canada. Skagway is just about 15 miles from the border. Tours cross it, and there’s usually a robust stream of visitors from the Yukon.

He and others in the tourism sector have their eyes on Canada’s policy around foreign-flagged ships this year. Large cruise ships have to stop in Canada on their way from a U.S. port like Seattle to another U.S. port like Ketchikan or Juneau. That’s an old U.S. maritime law.

When Canada closed its ports to cruise ships in 2020, it effectively ended the Alaska cruise season. It lifted those restrictions on cruise travel last fall. At Southeast Conference last week, Renee Limoge Reeve with Cruise Lines International Association said that Canada’s border being open is a good sign.

“But we still face challenges. We’re all aware of them,” she said.

She said her group is in frequent talks with the Canadian government. But she, along with businesses and municipalities, is concerned Canada could quickly rescind access again—and doom the cruise season.

Holly Johnson from the flight tour company Wings says that even though there’s plenty of uncertainty between now and this summer, there’s one thing she knows for sure.

“The world is ready to travel again,” she said. “Some of these guests have rescheduled over the last couple years. And they’re just determined to come back.”

She says she’s ready to be back in business, too. Even if it’s a modified amount of business.

Claire Stremple

Alaska News Reporter

I believe every Alaskan has a right to timely information about their health and health systems, and their natural environment and its management. My goal is to report thoughtful stories that inform, inspire and quench the curiosity of listeners across the state.

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