Alaska tourism scrambles to adjust to summer season without big ships

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The Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, Alaska, reopened this month.
The Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, Alaska, reopened this month. Photo Credit: HagePhoto

It's summertime, and Midgi Moore should be shepherding visitors through downtown Juneau, acquainting them with the city's culinary scene, from classic seafood shacks to innovative eateries helmed by Michelin-starred chefs.

As the owner of Juneau Food Tours, on any given day perhaps she would be leading a five-hour-plus Bites and Booze tour that includes a visit to the Mendenhall Glacier; maybe an all-ages, 90-minute iteration, sans the glacier visit and minus the craft cocktails. Maybe both, as when tourist season kicks into high gear and four to five groups a day, with eight to 14 guests each, sign up for the all-but-obligatory pilgrimage to Tracy's King Crab Shack and other culinary experiences.

"Actually, this year I was looking at a 200% increase in tickets, because the reservations were coming in so strong," said Moore, whose offerings range from about $65 to $175 per person. "Not only with my contracts with the ships where my prebookings are but also with direct booking through my website, phone calls, private parties, things like that."

But last month, Canada prohibited cruise ships with more than 100 passengers from calling at its ports until at least Oct. 31, dashing any hopes that major cruise lines might salvage this year's Alaska season. And for the Last Frontier's $4.5 billion tourism industry, the economic consequences promise to be immense, leaving local businesses scrambling to adjust to a summer without those crucial calls.

According to the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, over 2 million travelers visited Alaska from May to September 2018 (the most recent figures available), and of those visitors, 58%, or nearly 1.2 million, arrived by cruise ship. 

And in 2018, passengers and crew who arrived in Alaska spent over $1.24 billion, according to CLIA Alaska. The industry's total employment impact on the state that year was more than 22,000 workers, earning nearly $1.2 billion in wages.

Particularly for the state's southeastern tourism industry, summer cruise business represents the bulk of its annual arrivals.

At the Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, nestled amid the Chugach Mountains about 40 miles south of Anchorage, cruise passengers and wholesaler bookings comprise about half of the 301-room property's summer occupancy, according to general manager Mandy Hawes.

"We do have some local travelers that come to Alyeska who are from Alaska, but I would say that's definitely a minority piece of the business" in the summertime, she said. "In the summer, we rely on the destination traveler."

Without guests arriving via cruise, and with continued restrictions on U.S.-Canada border crossings, she said, "for us it's a very different summer."

Normally open year-round, the resort had closed in March for shelter-in-place restrictions; it reopened this month with safety protocols in place and a reduced staff. Its Seven Glaciers restaurant and Aurora Bar & Grill remain closed, and its 60-passenger tram, which takes guests to the top of its namesake mountain, is operating at half capacity.

Still, several of its other eateries have opened, and following an influx of in-state visitors at the property during its opening weekend, "we realized we needed to staff more than we had," Hawes said.

Looking to locals

Indeed, facing vastly diminished prospects for out-of-state visitors, Alaska's tourism interests are focusing on locals. Kyle Davis of Denali Park Adventures, whose attractions include ziplining, ATV tours and Jeep excursions, said his company is operating at a "drastically reduced" scale compared with past summers, with a customer base comprising mainly Alaskans. 

Efforts to appeal to locals extend well beyond the state's southeastern region. According to Scott McCrea, director of tourism for Explore Fairbanks, about 41% of summertime visitors to the region, about 400 miles north of Anchorage, arrive as part of a cruise. Those passengers are typically not originating from Inside Passage itineraries but instead are taking cruise tours as part of sailings that cross the Gulf of Alaska. 

"So we are definitely impacted by the cruise industry, even though we're not near the coast," he said. "Tourism is the second-largest employer here in the Fairbanks North Star borough -- military being the first -- so it's definitely impacted."

McCrea said Explore Fairbanks has implemented a plan to encourage locals "to get out and explore the different offerings and attractions that mostly visitors come here and do." He added that, much like current efforts by the Alaska Travel Industry Association and other regional organizations such as Visit Anchorage, "it's really all about the in-state market for this summer and encouraging people to explore Alaska's road system and visit these communities."

Small ships in the spotlight

The company's owner and CEO spoke about the changes guests can expect and how they should prepare before departure, and discussed the company's outlook for its other destinations.

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This summer will not be entirely devoid of cruising. Several small-ship lines are able to comply with the 250-passenger threshold of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's No Sail Order. American Cruise Lines is scheduled to begin its Alaska sailings July 23 aboard its 175-passenger American Constellation, and starting Aug. 1, UnCruise Adventures will offer a seven-night Glacier Bay National Park Adventure departing from Juneau.

In accordance with state regulations, guests will be asked to submit proof that they've tested negative for Covid-19 before they can board UnCruise's 60-passenger Wilderness Adventurer. That ensures a level of safety not only for crew and fellow passengers but for the Alaskan community, said UnCruise founder and CEO Dan Blanchard.

"We typically aren't a port call company; our activities are all about wilderness," he said. "And so the one advantage that UnCruise Adventures has is we don't make port calls during the trip, so that when you think about the community you're coming back to, they're much more at ease."

For businesses like Moore's Juneau Food Tours, such small-ship operations won't compensate for the absence of big ships. Nevertheless, she's seeing enough demand to resume tours in July.

"It'll be only private tours and six people max, because I want to respect the residents of Juneau as we're walking through town," she said. "Originally I thought, there's no way I'm going to do tours, but I got so many requests."

She recently unveiled Taste Alaska subscription boxes containing smoked salmon and other treats as well as a variety of souvenirs and travel guides, all designed to keep Alaska top of mind for prospective visitors.

Other tourism interests are also looking ahead. Salmon Berry Travel & Tours in Anchorage, which this summer is offering itineraries including a Matanuska Glacier walk and a variety of city tours, is working on itineraries for fall as well as next summer "and helping our travel trade partners to build summer 2021 itineraries that do not have a ship component," said owner Mandy Garcia.

Explore Fairbanks' McCrea said, "One thing we have to our advantage is we have a pretty solid winter market. We are very careful to say we are a year-round destination.

"Summer is still the peak season for us, like the rest of Alaska, but we've been seeing stronger, more rapid growth within our winter market, and most of that has to do with us being a very well-known northern lights destination," he said.

Alyeska Resort similarly benefits from positioning as a year-round endeavor, according to Hawes, who noted increased interest in the property's winter ski business, as evidenced by a season pass sale that wrapped up last month.

"We sold more season passes in that early-season window than, one, we were expecting and, two, than we did in several of the prior years," she said. "To us, it's a really positive indicator of how we're going to reopen the ski area this coming fall and winter."

But for now, Hawes said, "What I'm telling my team is it's one day, one week, one month at a time." 

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