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‘A qualified success’: Alaska’s abridged 2021 cruise ship season ends with hopes for next year

Norwegian Encore in Juneau on Oct. 20, 2021.
Norwegian Encore in Juneau on Oct. 20, 2021.(KTUU)
Published: Oct. 22, 2021 at 6:09 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The Norwegian Encore pulled into port in Juneau on Wednesday, making it the last large cruise ship to visit the city in 2021.

Juneau saw 74 ship calls over a shortened sailing season. Just over 115,000 people came to the city by large cruise ship this year compared to almost 1.3 million in 2019.

“It was a qualified success,” said Robert Venables, executive director of Southeast Conference, about the summer cruising season.

He said it was unusual to see a large cruise ship in Southeast Alaska so late in the year. Typically, the summer sailing season ends at the beginning of October.

“It was something of an experiment,” Venables said. “I think that’s something to really build on and something that we could look forward to in years to come, I hope.”

For many businesses and residents, the season will act as a bridge, helping them to survive until 2022 when many hope the visitor industry sector will return to something approaching normal.

Liz Perry, president and CEO of Travel Juneau, said the summer season was driven by independent travelers who typically make up a tiny fraction of those who arrive on cruise ships. Around 100,000 people came to Juneau independently and hotels reported reasonable occupancy rates, she added, but for retailers it was a different story.

“On the cruise side, retailers were very happy to have even an abbreviated season,” Perry said. “But most will tell you that revenues were 5-15% of their 2019 revenues.”

Billi Clem owns and operates Klondike Tours in Skagway. She has been working on submitting her sales tax figures for the third quarter, which reflect the challenges facing small business owners.

In the third quarter of 2019, she made $49,000 from tours. This year, it was $10,000.

Clem also owns Alaska Fairytales, a downtown art gallery. In the third quarter of 2019, the gallery made $127,000. This year, it made $19,000.

That may have been far lower than normal years, but that revenue helped keep the lights on and pay for labor.

“It definitely exceeded my expectations,” Clem said about her retail earnings.

The Municipality of Skagway is now discussing plans to help residents through the winter. An unemployment assistance program is being developed, using $2 million donated to the city by Norwegian Cruise Line.

At the beginning of the year, an Alaska large cruise ship season seemed impossible as Canada had extended a ban on them stopping there until 2022. Federal maritime law requires foreign-flagged ships to stop in a second country when sailing between two U.S. ports. For Alaska-bound sailings, that means a visit to Canada.

Alaska’s congressional delegation successfully pushed for a temporary waiver to that law, allowing for an abridged large cruise ship season. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, wants that to be permanent.

The Serenade of the Seas pulled into Ketchikan on July 9, making it the first large cruise ship to visit Alaska in 21 months. The ship, operated by Royal Caribbean, was described as “a giant beacon of hope” when it came to Juneau later in July.

All large ship sailings had been canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19, helping to make Southeast the hardest hit region economically during the pandemic.

All hopes now are on the 2022 tourism season. It could be a record-breaking season for Southeast Alaska if ships sail at normal capacity, but that is far from certain with the twists and turns of the pandemic.

“I think that managing our expectations is the wisest way to be prepared for next year, but I think a good sense of optimism is warranted,” Venables said.

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