Of the 2.26 million visitors to Alaska in 2019, more than half, or 1.17 million, arrived on cruise ships.
The Last Frontier is the most cruise-dependent destination in the U.S., but this year, while there is growing hope for a truncated big-ship Alaska cruise season -- if the CDC allows cruising from U.S. ports to resume by mid-July and legislation is enacted to temporarily lift Passenger Vessel Services Act restrictions -- even that would mean a much shorter and smaller season, coming off of a full year without a single large cruise ship.
Its response? Reinvention.
And as is true of operators, destinations and businesses worldwide during the pandemic, Alaska tourism officials and its travel-related businesses realize they will have to adapt quickly to survive.
Go Big, Go Alaska
The Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA) this spring launched a major campaign targeting the fly-in market, called Go Big, Go Alaska.
The campaign focuses on tapping travelers’ pent-up demand as well as their desire for outdoor, socially distanced settings. Also targeted: visitors who might typically have cruised to Alaska.
“This is an emotionally driven campaign,” said Sarah Leonard, ATIA CEO. “We wanted to connect with travelers who are making their travel plans now and to show off the vast open spaces that await them in Alaska. It’s the opposite of what we’ve all been facing as we’ve been cooped up at home. This campaign is also meant to drive home [the message] that Alaska is open for business. Although the Canadian border is closed and the big cruise season is uncertain, it is easy to fly to Alaska and travel independently.”
Leonard said that the ATIA wants to reach independent travelers “who might not know where to start in planning a trip to Alaska on their own.”
“We have all the resources to help them, including pointing them to travel advisors,” she said. “We are reaching out to major West Coast markets, to our traditional traveler, and we’re targeting families who may be interested in adventure and cultural experiences as well as people who have indicated they are ready to travel now.”
In Anchorage, which depends on cruise ships for up to half of its overnight guests, Visit Anchorage CEO Julie Saupe said that travel advisors have been pivotal in helping convince would-be cruisers to take an Alaska trip this year but to do it on land.
“We’ve heard from travel advisors and other travel professionals who were booking clients on cruises into Anchorage and South Central [Alaska]. They’re working to keep that business in Alaska this summer and are working with us to figure out ways to serve their clients,” Saupe said. “We’re hearing from both travel professionals and independent consumers who are finding new ways to book Anchorage. We’ve got a lot of rooms [to fill].”
Saupe said that Anchorage is “amplifying our messaging for the independent traveler.”
“Our budget is not what it used to be,” she continued. “But I can tell you there is interest in Alaska. … There is that pent-up demand out there, and people are looking for places to explore. There’s increased interest in parkland and outdoor spaces and fresh air, all of those things that Alaska and South Central really offer [in abundance].”
'There is interest in Alaska. … People are looking for places to explore.’
Julie Saupe, Visit Anchorage
Still, Saupe is not yet seeing bookings to match that interest.
“There is still a big group of people out there who are dreaming of travel but aren’t quite ready to get on an airplane,” she said. “We’ve certainly seen indicators that the booking window will be even shorter than it has been in the past. I think as vaccines continue to roll out and there’s general optimism that things will be open this summer, late summer will be better than early summer.”
Destinations get creative to draw visitors
For towns in Southeast Alaska, marketing to independent travelers is not just a pivot, it’s a complete one-eighty.
Skagway and Juneau are among the destinations receiving 90%-plus visitors from cruise ships. A second year without most of those ships could be potentially devastating for their economies.
With that in mind, Skagway launched a campaign called Save Our Skagway (SOS) that encourages visitation from other Alaskans, friends and family in the Lower 48 as well as independent tourists who want to experience a Skagway summer as they likely never will again: without the thousands of cruise ship passengers who typically descend on this town of only 980 residents. They’re also working with the very small, U.S.-flagged cruise lines that are still permitted to cruise this year.
“That’s how we’re going to save ourselves,” said Skagway mayor Andrew Cremata, adding that the campaign is already gaining traction on social channels and driving results.
“Everybody in town is mobilizing to see if they can get old friends to come up, family, people who used to live here,” he said. “So far, I’ve got 18 people coming up to visit. That’s just me. And a lot of people are having the same [results].
“I hear from hotel owners that it’s already booking up for May,” he added. “It was kind of a conceptual idea that people are just running with, because everybody here knows the stakes: We have to have people here in the summer.”
Liz Perry, CEO of Travel Juneau, said the capital city is doing more of what it has always done, including marketing to FIT, group and meetings visitors.
“We’re amping up our fourth-quarter marketing to really entice FIT, especially from the West Coast and Pacific Northwest, to come visit this summer,” Perry said, adding that like the ATIA, Juneau is focusing on the region’s “wide-open spaces” as well as Alaska’s high level of vaccinations and low Covid rates.
“Juneau is a Covid-safe place to come,” she said. “It’s going to be less crowded, and visitors are going to have plenty of space, plenty of room to roam around. That’s part of the messaging, as well.”
'Juneau visitors are going to have plenty of space, plenty of room to roam around.’
Liz Perry, Travel Juneau
And like Skagway, Juneau launched a campaign to get locals to encourage their friends and relatives to visit.
“We understand that we want to get as many FIT in town as possible,” Perry said.
She said that Juneau businesses are in a holding pattern, undecided on whether or not to open. If cruising does not resume, there will be upfront costs to open, and no one can guarantee that the FIT market will be strong enough to cover operating expenses.
Other businesses, she said, have gotten creative in order to stay afloat. She cited the example of Juneau Food Tours, which offers culinary walking tours of the city but this year added a food box delivery to its offerings, which it sends all over the U.S., with items such as salmon jerky from the Alaska Seafood Co. and Chugach Chocolates.
“The idea is that if you can’t get to Juneau, here’s a little taste of Juneau and Alaska to hold you over until you can get here,” Perry said.
With most cruising shut down, Juneau-based Above & Beyond Alaska Wilderness Adventures, which has long catered to both cruise ship passengers and FIT, has gone back to its original game plan. It opened in 2002 with independent travelers in mind, and it offers longer tours than what most cruisers have time for. In 2016, the company launched a shorter, less strenuous “canoe, paddle and trek” tour targeting cruise passengers.
It worked, said Liz Barlow, Above & Beyond’s sales and marketing manager. But with the possibility that no cruise ships will arrive, “[Above & Beyond] is essentially going back to our roots, targeting independent travelers,” she said.
Above & Beyond recently launched a three-day Glaciers, Bears and Whales Adventure package that combines glacier trekking, bear-viewing and whale-watching for travelers who use Juneau as a base.
“We wanted something that really drew the independent travelers to Juneau,” Barlow said.
Above & Beyond owner Becky Janes said that the company’s foundation has made it able to function this summer even as cruise-dependent businesses may stay shuttered. The company will have to downsize from 30 to 40 staff to about 10 this summer.
“So, a much smaller scale, but again, our goal is just to run,” Janes said.
Barlow added that independent-market demand is strong, especially among groups of family, friends and people who had a cruise planned and decided to keep the Alaska dream alive.
Ketchikan also depends mostly on cruise passengers, but it has always had a strong fishing tourism sector.
At least one Ketchikan fishing lodge says that a year with fewer cruise ships could be a boon.
“We are seeing reservations from people who would have normally taken a cruise but are traveling by plane this year,” said Matt Herod, general manager of Salmon Falls Resort. “For those looking to experience the usual highlights of an Alaska cruise, Ketchikan is a great home base to explore the Inside Passage or spend the day on a boat fishing or explore Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.”
Herod said that the resort is even adding excursions to meet increased demand, expanding from its most popular guided and self-guided fishing excursions to new adventure, cultural and culinary experiences such as floatplane tours to the Misty Fjords National Monument and a salmon-cooking demonstration paired with beers from Denali Brewing Co.
“This summer will be a great time to explore the region in a rare time: with limited crowds,” he said.
Replacing cruise passengers no easy feat
No matter how creative businesses get or how good their ability is to reinvent, replacing more than half of the state’s tourists seems like an impossible goal.
And communities like those in Southeast Alaska are so cruise-dependent that they wouldn’t be able to house the number of FIT visitors needed to replace cruise passengers, who typically overnight aboard their ships. Juneau, for example, has fewer than 1,500 hotel rooms.
And in many parts of the Southeast, even businesses that have never worked directly with cruise passengers depend to a large extent on the cruise season because so many attractions that their clients visit will only open if cruise ships provide the volume necessary to match their scale of operations.
Nate Vallier, president of Juneau-based Alaska & Yukon Tours, has a client base comprised almost entirely of independent travelers. But he says that for many of the attractions he takes groups to, such as Icy Strait Point or the Taku Glacier Lodge in Juneau, both of which can only be reached by boat or floatplane, it may not be worth opening without the thousands of cruise ship passengers who normally visit.
“It has compressed what our offerings are for the independent traveler,” Vallier said of not having cruise ships. “I need the infrastructure for things to be open.”
The lack of cruise ships ‘has compressed our offerings for the independent traveler.’
Nate Vallier, Alaska & Yukon Tours
The other reason cruising is so important to communities in Alaska overall is that so many of the state’s FIT visitors get their first taste of Alaska on a cruise ship and then return for a land-based visit. “100% of my clients” came to Alaska for the first time on a ship, Vallier said.
Travel Juneau’s Perry concurred, noting that 20% of the capital’s independent travelers first visited the region on a cruise “and decided to come back and spend more time.”
“So that’s something that concerns us, as well,” Perry said. “If they don’t get that initial taste of Southeast, then that’s a market that we’re losing for FIT three or four years down the road."