After COVID-19 hurt Ketchikan tourism businesses, first large cruise ship set to arrive on Friday

Welcome sign for Ketchikan, Alaska.
Welcome sign for Ketchikan, Alaska.(KTUU)
Published: Jul. 5, 2021 at 3:24 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The first large cruise ship since October of 2019 is set to arrive in Alaska on Friday morning.

The Serenade of the Seas, owned by Royal Caribbean Group, has a capacity of 2,476 passengers, but it will be far from full. The ship is conducting a simulated voyage to Ketchikan as required by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before a shortened Alaska cruise ship season kicks off in late July.

Bari Golin-Blaugrund, a spokesperson for Cruise Line international Association, said a simulated voyage means the Serenade of the Seas will be at roughly 10% of its total capacity.

The return of large cruise ships will be a welcome relief for Ketchikan and Southeast Alaska in general.

Capt. Jeff Karlson, the owner of Lighthouse Excursions, runs tours from Ward Cove out past the Totem Bight Historical State Park. He said 2020 was “challenging, to say the least.”

Southeast Conference projected that 1.3 million cruise ship passengers would come to Ketchikan in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic saw all sailings of large ships cancelled and the region missed out on an estimated $800 million in revenue.

This summer has seen some independent travelers return to Southeast Alaska, but not in the numbers that come on cruise ships. That has allowed Lighthouse Excursions to offer one tour per week on Saturday mornings.

“We’re finally getting back into the swing of things,” Karlson said in June.

Rebekka Esbjornson, Karlson’s wife, said there would be six or seven tours per week when large cruise ships start arriving. That’s still well below the six or seven tours per day the company would offer during the height of a normal season, she added.

Ketchikan restaurants, hotels and other tour operators have struggled without cruise ships arriving for over 21 months.

Creek Street, the historical district in the center of downtown Ketchikan, is typically bustling in the middle of summer. Tourists swarm up and down the street, learning about its colorful history and visiting its many stores.

Hamilton Gelhar owns Fish Creek Co., an art and gift store that sells wares from across Southeast Alaska. He pivoted to selling jigsaw puzzles through his website during the pandemic.

But, the 2021 season has seen Creek Street very quiet again.

“It’s very strange,” he said. “You couldn’t make it up a couple of years ago.”

It’s a similar story for Michelle and Ray Troll who own the Soho Coho gallery further down the street. Michelle Troll said the business had to close for two and half months last year, but that sales have been up since a difficult 2020.

“We were very, very, very fortunate,” she said.

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