No cruise ship of tourists, no tourism, right? Not quite.

Passengers aboard Adventure Bound Alaska’s vessel Captain Cook photograph the South Sawyer Glacier calving in Tracy Arm fjord on June 13, 2020. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

This year’s cruise ship season in Southeast Alaska never got underway because of the pandemic. No boatloads of tourists, no tourism, right? Not quite.

One sure sign that visitors are making their way to Juneau again is the bright red shopping bags of the Alaska Shirt Company. On Wednesday, the Rose family from Portland was shopping in the big, seasonal souvenir shop for gifts, including something for a kid who mowed their lawn and fed their fish.

“Get him that one and that one. I don’t think he needs that,” 14-year-old Taylor Rose advised his mom.

“The bear poop? I mean, every 10-year-old boy wants something regarding poop,” said mom Heather Rose, with a chuckle.

The Alaska Shirt Company mostly sells inexpensive knickknacks, like Alaska-themed t-shirts, totem pole refrigerator magnets, and novelty bear poop key chains.

Heather Rose grew up in Juneau. She originally planned to visit family here and take in the Fourth of July festivities. Those were canceled, but she said there was still stuff to do.

“I was surprised,” she said. “We’ve had a blast, absolute blast. We’ve gone hiking, we’ve pulled crab pots, we’ve done this, just walking around downtown, probably, this is our third day? So there’s been plenty for us to engage in. … It’s actually a good time to travel here, because there is more to do. … Feels like we own the town.”

Next door, there’s another seasonal shop open with high-end gifts. Sunny Harjani manages the family-owned Blue Diamond jewelry stores. Between Juneau and Ketchikan, there are four.

Harjani said it was a tough decision to open two of them this year. But Juneau is his summer home, and they’ve been in Alaska for over 20 years.

“It’s been very, very different. … it’s been much more quieter,” he said. “So we’re not seeing that much movement here.”

Sunny Harjani and Pankaj Chang at Blue Diamond jewelry store
Manager Sunny Harjani, left, and Pankaj Chang pose for a photo at their jewelry store Blue Diamond on South Franklin Street in Juneau on July 15, 2020. Harjani said it was a tough decision to open the family-owned business this season without cruise ships, but he went ahead with it because Juneau is his summer home and they’ve been here for more than 20 years. (Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

He said he’s not sure locals even know they’re open.

It’s not as obvious as the brick-and-mortar storefronts, but some tour operators and summer attractions are up and running, too.

Glacier Gardens had a soft open recently with free, mini walking tours, before they restarted discounted driving tours in their golf carts. The meticulously landscaped attraction is known for its surreal, upside-down trees whose roots are used as hanging flower planters.

In a normal year, guide Wesley Bowhay said it would be, “Really, really busy. We would have … Tuesdays, we would probably have 20 buses, at least.”

Wesley Bowhay guides visitors through Glacier Gardens on July 8, 2020.
Wesley Bowhay guides visitors through Glacier Gardens on July 8, 2020. The meticulously landscaped attraction had a soft open with free, mini walking tours and is now offering discounted driving tours. (Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Debbie Rash of Chino, California, is visiting Juneau for her third time. She’s going on a guided, six-day jet ski tour around Southeast Alaska with a company called Dangerous Water Adventures.

Of course, the water’s not the only danger this year. Rash said COVID-19 and the related travel mandates weren’t deal breakers.

“It’s all doable,” she said. “Life goes on.”

She wasn’t too worried about the coronavirus during the jet ski portion of her trip.

“It’s all outdoors and we’re all on our own skis, so we’re all away from each other,” Rash said.

She can’t be alone. The tour company’s website shows their trips are sold out through most of August.

Adventure Bound Alaska is running limited capacity boat tours to Tracy Arm to spot wildlife and watch glaciers calve into the sea. 

Passengers aboard Adventure Bound Alaska's vessel Captain Cook photograph the South Sawyer Glacier calving in Tracy Arm fjord on June 13, 2020.
Passengers aboard Adventure Bound Alaska’s vessel Captain Cook photograph the South Sawyer Glacier calving in Tracy Arm fjord on June 13, 2020. (Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Before travel restrictions were relaxed, Midgi Moore of Juneau Food Tours started putting together subscription boxes of locally made goodies that can be sent to people who couldn’t come to Alaska this year.

“Our motto is, ‘If you can’t come to us, we’ll come to you,’” she said.

She’s restarted in-person restaurant tours, too, but with smaller groups than when cruise ships come in.

There are some common threads among who’s reopening.

“The smaller operations seem to be doing a little bit better for those independent passengers that they will be taking out,” said Liz Perry, CEO of Travel Juneau, a nonprofit that markets Alaska’s capital city as a travel destination.

Based on calls to her office, Perry said there are two types of travelers making their way up: resolute independents, and friends and families of locals.

“They are a fairly determined lot, we have found,” Perry said of the independents. “When they call the office, they say, you know, ‘This is the year, we’ve been planning this a long time. Tell me how to get from point A to point B.’”

She said there was a flurry of interest when Alaska first relaxed travel restrictions, but it’s fallen off as COVID-19 cases surge around the country.

It’s too soon to know if this scaled-down tourism market will be viable as the pandemic drags out. But Perry said Travel Juneau is developing a “safe cities” campaign, a set of protocols businesses could opt into that lets everyone know they’ve got a plan for operating safely.

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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