ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Just as Alaska’s tourism season heats up, Princess Cruises says it will close one of its five lodges in the state this summer because of staffing shortages.
The Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge will close on June 17, according to a brief statement provided by Negin Kamali, a spokeswoman with Princess Cruises.
It had opened on May 19 for the first time in more than two years, after the COVID-19 pandemic halted major cruise sailings to Southcentral Alaska until this summer.
Located a 3 1/2-hour drive northeast of Anchorage in Copper Center, the lodge is a jumping-off point for guests visiting Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest national park in the U.S.
The 85-room lodge has primarily hosted cruise guests on prearranged package tours, but people traveling on their own also stayed or dined out there, said Kathy Stratton with the Greater Copper Valley Chamber of Commerce and visitor center in nearby Glennallen.
The closure will hurt hospitality options and impact some businesses a bit, she said.
“It’s always bad to see someone close because I think there is enough business for them to be open,” she said.
The labor shortage is affecting employers of all types all over the region, even federal agencies and the school district, Stratton said. The visitor center has reduced its schedule by about four hours daily because it lacks employees, she said.
“Some businesses have been looking for employees for two years and haven’t found them,” she said.
The labor shortage became a problem in Alaska and nationally after the pandemic led to widespread unemployment, a surge in government aid and broad shifts in the economy, disrupting the ties many workers had with their employers.
The leisure and hospitality industry led the job losses in Alaska. Many tourism operators, anticipating a strong summer, entered the season with concerns they wouldn’t find enough employees.
Holland America Line, a sister company to Princess Cruises owned by Carnival, said that staffing shortages in the hospitality industry had forced it to cancel some itineraries for a tour package in Alaska, the Yukon and Denali Cruise tours, which takes visitors between Fairbanks and Dawson City in Canada, according to Erik Elvejord, a spokesperson with Holland America.
Affected customers will get a refund, the statement said, adding, “we appreciate their understanding of this situation which is unfortunately present throughout the hospitality industry.”
The Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge currently has 70 seasonal employees and six full-time employees, Kamali said in an email.
The lodge has employed about 90 people in the past, the company has said.
Princess Cruises is working to “provide employment opportunities for the displaced teammates from Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge,” the statement said.
In Alaska, Princess Cruises also operates the Denali Princess Wilderness and the Mount McKinley Princess Wilderness lodges, near Denali National Park and Preserve, as well as lodges in Fairbanks and Kenai.
“Guests with affected land tours will have the option of accepting an alternative itinerary, rebooking for 2023, or canceling their cruise tour,” the statement from Princess Cruises said. “Princess Cruises will be in touch directly with affected guests.”
Ronald Simpson, who owns a bar and inn in Copper Center, said the lodge closure will mean less business for his bar. The lodge workers were patrons, he said.
He said he’s short on employees, too, and had to halt breakfasts at the inn, though he’s soon bringing up a former employee from the Lower 48 to restore that service.
Simpson said he worries the closure is a sign the tourism season isn’t going as well as many in the industry had expected.
He had healthy room reservations at his inn earlier this year. But a higher-than-normal amount of guests have canceled, perhaps related to concerns about inflation, he said.
“I think people are seeing the weekly rise in cost of gas, that’s the most obvious thing, and it’s scaring people off from traveling,” he said.
However, Stratton, with the chamber and visitor center, said there seems to be a lot of Europeans and South Americans visiting the area this year after pandemic restrictions disrupted travel to Alaska the last two years, she said.
“We’re seeing a lot of foreign travelers this year,” she said.