Alaska’s cruise towns expected a record season, now tourism workers are reeling

A daily scheduling white board in the dispatch office of Juneau Tours and Whale Watch is blank for the pre-season on March 13, 2020. It’s likely to stay blank well into the summer this year with the cruise ship season suspended over coronavirus concerns. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Labor officials released Alaska’s latest jobs numbers for January last week. They’re up, but come with a big asterisk: It’s too early to show effects of the coronavirus. Labor impacts are expected to show up in the data for February and March.

Now, industry and government travel restrictions are keeping the big cruise ships from coming to Alaska until at least July. For cruise towns like Juneau, where the visitor industry has been the biggest private sector employer, the impacts are huge.

Until a few weeks ago, the 2020 cruise ship season in Alaska was poised to set new records.

At Juneau Tours and Whale Watch, General Manager Serene Hutchinson said pre-sales were up 30% to 40%.

“And so we were getting ready for a huge season. We were sweating, we were nervous,” Hutchinson said. 

Normally at this time of year, the office would be buzzing with phone calls and the clickity-clack of keyboards – taking bookings and hiring. But this year, it’s quiet enough for a black lab mix named Zac, short for Prozac, to nap serenely in the spring sun pouring in from the windows. 

There’s only one other employee in the office. Half-packed equipment lays idle, getting ready to move to a downsized office.

Hutchinson said they had planned to have a summer staff of 85 to 90 people. Instead, she recently laid off half her year-round staff. They now have five employees. Five instead of 85. 

“Now, the people I just laid off are really nervous because they don’t know when they’re gonna start back. And then as far as all my seasonal workers, I’ve been asking them to — as far as drivers and boat crew — I’ve just been asking them to stand by,” Hutchinson said. 

She said it’s likely she’ll lose them to other work. If the cruise ship season does eventually start, she’ll have to rehire all over again.

Some version of this is probably playing out at businesses across the region. According to labor data for Juneau, about one out of every 7 or 8 jobs here is in travel and hospitality.

Yasmine Habash has counted on a summer tourism job for the past nine years. Now, she said she’s “waiting for a tourism season that may or may not come.”

She’s babysitting and taking a walk around Overstreet Park.

“I don’t think there’s any daycare right now. So I’m just helping some friends out,” she said. “They’re still working.” 

She said she’s trying to be optimistic that there will be a cruise ship season. But she’s also thinking about plans B and C.

“I would definitely look for other employment in the Capitol, ” she said. “And then Plan C is leaving — leaving Juneau maybe for a season or longer.”

David Noon teaches American history at the University of Alaska Southeast. In 2018, he started driving buses in the summer for Holland America Princess to help make ends meet. He’s in a kind of dark place. 

“We just hit the library yesterday, before they close for two weeks,” he said. “So we took out a lot of books on, you know, the Black Death and serial killers and, you know, things are pretty dark in my household at the moment. My kids are, they’re along for the ride.”

His kids are old enough that he doesn’t have to worry about childcare issues. 

“No, no, they can, you know, just leave them at home with a, you know, a rifle and a can opener and they’ll be they’ll be fine,” he joked. 

He said he’s fortunate to have savings to draw on, but doesn’t think he’ll be able to pay down some of his debt for awhile. He’ll be curbing his leisure spending and won’t travel. 

“I’m good at beating myself up in most circumstances, but I’m just not doing it right now because everybody’s in a state of heightened ambiguity.”

Habash said, at least it’s a good time to get outside.

“Just try not to be stressed and getting outside in nature, which the weather has helped with a lot, some nature therapy and some sunshine. So just finding the good,” Habash said. 

In a statement Tuesday, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development encouraged people that are out of work to apply for unemployment insurance benefits. It’s anticipating a substantial increase in filings and long wait times. To deal with the volume, the department wants applicants to file online and to limit calls for questions. 

Jeremy Hsieh is the deputy managing editor of the KTOO newsroom in Juneau. He’s a podcast fiend who’s worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He ran Gavel Alaska for 360 North from 2011 to 2016, and is big on experimenting with novel tools and mediums (including the occasional animated gif) to tell stories and demystify the news. Jeremy’s an East Coast transplant who moved to Juneau in 2008.

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