Cruise ships returned to Southeast Alaska, but don’t call it a comeback

People walk on a dock, with a cruise ship in the background.
People walk on the dock in front of Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas. The ship docked in Juneau on July 23, 2021. (Bridget Dowd / KTOO)

Cruise ships have returned to Southeast Alaska, but they aren’t full.

Southeast businesses say they’re a hopeful sign, but this isn’t an easy year.

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Cruise tourists usually pour off the docks into the heart of downtown Juneau. This summer, it’s more of a trickle.

Still, local businesses are celebrating the visitors’ return.

“I’d say there was like a sigh of relief, like, okay, we can do this,” said Scott Bergman, an owner of Alaska Fudge Company. Long bars of the candy sat behind him on marble slabs as he stirred caramel in a copper pot, and a steady flow of customers entered the shop. Cruise tourists are the bulk of Bergman’s clientele.

“We’re gonna get through to 2022,” he said. “Yeah, I mean, that is what a lot of the businesses down here are looking for, you know, enough money in the bank to get through the winter.”

The year before the pandemic, Alaska set record numbers for cruise ship tourism. On a busy summer day back then, Bergman said, he made up to 300 pounds of fudge. This year, it’s more like 100 pounds.

A man in a red t-shirt and wearing gloves stirs caramel near a big window.
Scott Bergman stirs caramel at the Alaska Fudge Company in downtown Juneau. (Claire Stremple/KTOO)

Wendy Andrews, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., cruises Alaska every year with her husband. They can’t remember if it has been six or eight times.

“Glad to be back,” Andrews said.

They always stop at Bergman’s fudge shop for local flavors like Glacier Chip and Motherlode Maple.

“Every time we come, we buy fudge,” she said. “We buy the three-pack because we can’t make up our mind.”

Like Andrews, almost all of Southeast Alaska’s tourists step off a cruise ship — 90%.

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Meilani Schijvens runs an economic development firm in Juneau. She surveyed regional businesses and found that last year, revenue was down by more than half.

“And 50% are still struggling to pay their bills just to keep their head above water right now, and about a third still remain vulnerable to closure,” she said.

She said this year’s season is a really good sign, even though she estimates that Juneau will see about 10% of its usual cruise traffic this year.

The season is short — it started in July rather than May — but it’s also condensed. She said that makes it hard for tour operators to get fully staffed for just a few uncertain months.

“Southeast Alaskans are up for challenges,” said Schijvens. “They’re very resilient and very innovative. And people are figuring it out. But it’s not for the faint of heart.”

Serene Hutchinson is among those figuring it out. She operates a Juneau tour company that offers whale watching and bus excursions. She said psychologically it’s good to be back in business.

“Financially, you know, financially, probably when all is said and done, hopefully, breakeven?” Hutchinson said.

This year, just a fraction of her fleet is running. She said she’s booking at less than 10% of “usual.” She and most of her staff have second jobs. She can only offer a couple months of work at half the usual pay.

She said there’s been an uptick in independent travelers, but nothing that comes close to matching the loss of cruise volume.

“We’re living in the sort of between world of just being so grateful for anything because anything is better than zero and last year was devastating,” said Hutchinson.

On this summer day, Hutchinson had just sent a whale-watching boat out and had plans to jump in as a deckhand for one of her afternoon tours. She could only afford to hire back a few key employees, so everyone has to help out where they can.

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