At normal capacity, Southeast Alaska could see record-breaking 1.5M cruise ship passengers next year

The Serenade of the Seas in Juneau on July, 23, 2021.
The Serenade of the Seas in Juneau on July, 23, 2021.(KTUU)
Published: Sep. 20, 2021 at 6:34 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - After two disastrous summers for the visitor industry sector, early forecasts project that over 1.57 million cruise ship passengers could come to Southeast Alaska in 2022.

But there could be impediments to seeing that happen, including if the COVID-19 pandemic keeps cruise ships from sailing at full capacity.

Meilani Schijvens, director of Rain Coast Data, presented to Southeast Conference’s annual meeting last week in Haines. She analyzed projected cruise ship voyages and found that if ships sailed at normal capacity, there would be a record number of passengers arriving in Alaska next summer.

  • Juneau could see 639 voyages and 1,570,602 passengers
  • Ketchikan is forecast to see 598 voyages and 1,401,387 passengers
  • Skagway could see 1,203,139 passengers on 474 voyages

The projected 2022 passenger numbers represents an 18% jump from the 1.33 million cruise ship passengers, which was a record, who arrived in Southeast in 2019. It’s expected that over 90% of tourists coming to Southeast next year would arrive by large cruise ship.

The return of large cruise ships to Alaska in July after nearly two years has given a bump to the visitor industry sector and should help some business owners survive until next year. Schijvens estimated that Southeast would see around 10-12% of cruise ship passengers in 2021 that came in 2019.

“It’s kind of a mixed bag,” said Liz Perry, CEO of Travel Juneau. She said Alaska’s capital city had seen a larger-than-expected influx of independent travelers this summer. Juneau hotels have also been fairly full with reasonable levels of occupancy.

“Our retailers and restaurants are telling us that they’re hitting between 5% and 15% of what they would usually have gotten in 2018 or 2019,” Perry said. “So, they haven’t recovered at nearly the rate that maybe the hotels did.”

But the ongoing surge of the delta variant hasn’t helped.

“I think it definitely impacted us, especially here at the end of the season,” Perry said, explaining nationwide, there is evidence people are delaying travel plans with COVID-19 cases rising across the country.

Robert Venables, executive director of Southeast Conference, agreed, saying the delta surge has dashed hopes for a strong fall visitor season.

“It kind of put the pause on some of those expectations,” he added.

There are also questions how tourism operators will be able to get the staff they need next year after two years with little or no business. Venables is also concerned another variant surge could hit cruise ship capacity and reduce passenger numbers next summer.

Southeast Alaska lost the most jobs and was the state’s hardest hit region economically in 2020, but there are signs of a fragile, uneven recovery. Schjivens presented the data in Haines to business and community leaders last week:

  • In 2020, Southeast Alaska lost almost 6,000 jobs or 13% of its total workforce and $190 million in total wages.
  • Last year saw a disastrous regional seafood catch that was 63% below the 10-year averages of pounds landed.
  • Southeast has seen its sixth straight year of population declines and a rising median age to over 40.

Tourists didn’t come to Southeast in 2020 and neither did salmon. Southeast Alaska saw record-breaking bad runs, coupled with low prices and poor demand. This year, fishing has somewhat rebounded.

“The chum return this year in Southeast Alaska was much better than recent years, the last two years,” said Amy Daugherty, the executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association. “We’re relieved.”

Pink salmon returned well above forecasts, and sockeye salmon and coho salmon also somewhat came back. There was also a jump in seafood processing jobs.

“Significantly higher seafood prices have also helped make 2021 a better year,” Schijvens wrote.

The dismal 2020 Southeast seafood and tourism seasons saw calls for a region-wide economic disaster. Alaska commercial fishermen are also still waiting to share in $50 million in federal COVID-19 relief and there’s frustration at the delays in getting aid.

Southeast Alaska, like Alaska in general, is seeing signs of a recovery but it’s lagging behind the country as a whole. Nolan Klouda, an economist with the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, pointed to data that showed Alaska ranking among the bottom two or three states in terms of employment bouncing back.

“It’s even hard to call it a recovery at this point,” Klouda said.

He noted that employment numbers have been largely flat and trying to recover to 2019 levels is still troubling. That was not a “banner year” for Alaska, as the state was still recovering from a yearslong recession, Klouda added.

Data from the Department of Labor and Workforce Development shows that hospitality, retail, oil and gas are still well down from 2019. Construction is a bright spot that has largely bounced back from its pandemic losses.

The big, unanswered question for Southeast is whether the cruise ship industry will fully bounce back, too.

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