JUNEAU -- On a sunny September day, with fluffy white clouds scraping the mountain tops, one cruise ship after another sailed into port and docked here, releasing thousands of passengers on land to explore.
The ships included the Norwegian Spirit, Holland America's Noordam and the Majestic Princess. Royal Caribbean's Serenade of the Seas was the last to arrive.
On the Serenade, dressed in a navy blue, Royal-branded puffy vest, Royal Caribbean Group CEO Jason Liberty stood on the worn dance floor of the Safari Lounge to hear from city officials, dock developers, restaurant owners and other members of the travel community who count on cruise companies to bring people to Alaska.
After the pandemic crushed the cruise industry in 2020 and a slow resumption of service in 2021, cruising finally returned to Alaska in earnest this year. As Liberty, who has been CEO for just over nine months, ventured on an end-of-season listening tour in Anchorage, Juneau and Sitka, what he heard was a mix of gratitude for the company's cruise business and challenges with ongoing labor shortages.
Royal Caribbean Group has had its own struggles. The company went from making about $10 billion a year before the pandemic to $0 during the stoppage, Liberty told them.
"I've had a lot of schooling in my life, probably too much schooling. There wasn't any lesson on how to deal with that," he told the dozens of Juneau leaders before him. "A huge impact to us, but also a huge impact to all these great communities."
Since 2020, the pandemic's impact has eased. Congress worked out a historic exemption to the Passenger Vessel Services Act in 2021, enabling cruise ships to resume sailing to Alaska without needing to stop in Canada, which had banned cruise ships until early 2022. The exemption allowed for a partial 2021 season in Alaska, where in 2019 one in 10 jobs was related to the travel industry.
"As we all learned, getting back up into business from practically zero was not a small task, and we were going to battle protocols, we were going to battle huge labor issues, and somehow, some way you were all able to do that in a very successful way," said Liberty. "We did it. We got off the other side of this."
With Canada dropping its cruise ban, 2022 became the first full cruise season since the pandemic began.
Royal Caribbean Group's three brands, Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Silversea Cruises, sailed 10 ships in Alaska this year. That's up from 2019, when the company sent six ships to the Last Frontier.
"This landscape here is some of the most incredible landscapes on the planet. Of course, we keep upping our game on our ships," said Liberty. "We want to always make sure the experience that's happening on the ship is also happening on land."
This first full season back was a good but challenging year, local leaders said. Cruise lines consistently delivered cruisers to explore the state's mountains, glaciers, nature, culture and food, but businesses struggled to hire enough workers to handle them all.
"Cruise lines have done an amazing job filling their beds," said Reecia Wilson, who owns five waterfront restaurants in Juneau.
She normally employs about 225 people between those locations, but due to labor shortages she is only able to operate three of the restaurants. "We're trying to crawl our way out of the pandemic," she said.
Preston Carnahan, who runs business and destination development on North America's west coast for Royal Caribbean International, said labor issues have also affected access to excursions, like coach tours or whale-watching.
"The tours that are available are selling out earlier," he said, leading some cruisers to fill in the gaps by booking outside tours.
The same labor issues that have plagued the lower 48 are present in Alaska, several business leaders said. Between retirements and the Great Resignation trend of workers leaving their jobs, many Alaska companies have struggled to employ enough staff, said Sarah Leonard, CEO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association. The association is now exploring how to better promote job opportunities to attract people to work in Alaska, she said.
Asked if businesses in Hoonah, the home of Icy Strait Point, have a labor issue, mayor Gerald Byers responded, "Who doesn't?" Those labor issues are across the board, including restaurants and hotels, he said. It's not just in travel; several city jobs posted a year ago have yet to be filled, he said.
Business is booming this year in Seward, a town of 3,000 residents where some 175,000 people came through this year on cruise ships, said Janette Bower, city manager.
And despite having no cruise ships in 2021, Liz DeMoss, a city council member and owner of Seward Alehouse, said the city hit record numbers for campground income in 2021 and high numbers of in-state travelers, which signaled to DeMoss and the city that people would be ready to travel again in 2022.
"Alaska was one of the more exotic places people could go when you couldn't travel to other countries yet," she said.