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

A cruise ship docked, with a mountainous backdrop, on a sunny day.
A view from the Goldbelt Tram of a Princess Cruises ship docked in Juneau on Aug. 31, 2021. (Jennifer Pemberton / KTOO)

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.”

Royal Caribbean is among the cruise lines making bold predictions about a record breaking year for tourism in Southeast Alaska.

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 toward domestic travel this year. However, he added a serious caveat.

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

But after two years of pandemic, some Alaskans are more cautious.

“We’ve just been sort of holding things together with duct tape, as you do up here,” said Holly Johnson, who has run Wings Airways and Taku Glacier Lodge in Juneau for the last two decades.

Johnson said she loves the optimism of some cruise lines, but she hasn’t been hearing that from all of them. So far, she’s gotten great pre-season bookings this year, after not operating for the last two seasons. Even though some cruise ships came in 2021, it was only about a tenth of pre-pandemic crowds.

The pre-season booking are just one indicator of the season to come, said Johnson. 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 said 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 said 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 said 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 said 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 100 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 bite out of savings.

Mayor Andrew Cremata said 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 said 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.

Johnson, from the flight tour company Wings, said 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 said she’s ready to be back in business, too. Even if it’s a modified amount of business.

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