Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer and a six-foot-tall salmon mascot greeted tourists Friday as the first large, passenger-carrying cruise ship of 2021 arrived in the state’s biggest cruise ship port.
Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas carried only about 630 passengers — a quarter of its capacity — because of COVID-19 concerns, but tourism workers in Juneau said they believe the ship’s arrival is a sign of hope for their industry, and tourists aboard the ship said they feel safe.
Greg Pilcher, who has sold dockside tickets to whale-watching tours for almost 20 years, said he didn’t think there would be much appetite for touring on this first voyage, but sales were “better than expected.”
Tourism is the biggest private-sector industry in Southeast Alaska, and most tourists arrive here on cruise ships carrying more than 250 passengers. Those ships stopped coming during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a massive effort was needed to clear legal and public health hurdles. Friday’s arrival ended a 21-month hiatus.
The Serenade of the Seas conducted a test voyage to Ketchikan earlier this month, but this is the first large ship to carry paying passengers to Alaska since 2019. (Smaller ships have been sailing since earlier this summer and made some voyages last year.)
Clint Friederichs of Iowa had planned to come to Alaska in August with three members of his family but moved his trip forward. Until a few days before leaving Seattle aboard the Serenade of the Seas, he and his group didn’t know they’d be on the first large ship to return to Alaska.
Large-ship cruise lines are planning 74 stops in Juneau this year, according to the latest available schedule. Pilcher said he expects the ships to fill closer to capacity as the year goes on — the last ship arrives Oct. 20 — but even if that occurs, the number of tourist visits will be a fraction of what it was in 2019.
In that year, Juneau welcomed about 1.3 million cruise ship tourists. If all currently scheduled ships arrive as planned and carry an average of 1,000 passengers, that’s only 74,000 big-ship tourists, about what Juneau received in the 1970s.
Because Juneau’s tourism industry is designed for bulk tourism, some businesses are staying shut this year. There aren’t enough customers to justify the spending needed for a restart. Two dockside restaurants are staying closed this summer, sled-dog tours on nearby glaciers have been canceled, and even some tourist-trafficked jewelry stores had their doors shut on Friday.
At the Alaskan Brewing Company, tasting room supervisor Ben Jahn hosted an event for visiting Royal Caribbean employees and some writers traveling aboard the Serenade of the Seas.
In a normal tourism year, Jahn said, he might have 15 employees in the tasting room. This year, it’s just himself and one other person. Still, business is picking up, he said. Independent travelers have been coming since July 2020, but he expects numbers to increase as ships arrive.
“There’s definitely still groups of tourists showing up in Juneau, but obviously, I expect that to roughly double with the ships coming in,” he said.
He’s looking forward to having more people around.
“For me, it makes my job a lot more fun,” he said.
There are some concerns that shipboard COVID-19 outbreaks could diminish the modest expectations for this year’s large-ship tourism season. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is prepared to halt ships with large numbers of cases aboard.
Before buying their tickets, passengers received a health and safety warning: “If a certain threshold level of COVID-19 is detected onboard the ship during your voyage, the voyage will end immediately, the ship will return to the port of embarkation, and your subsequent travel, including your return home, may be restricted or delayed,” it said in part.
One small ship — the American Constellation — abruptly canceled a voyage earlier this month after a COVID-19 outbreak onboard. That outbreak has been connected to 16 cases, Juneau officials said Friday.
To avoid that possibility, each cruise ship has been required to complete a CDC-mandated plan, and each cruise line is requiring crew and passengers over age 12 to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Some cruise lines are forbidding children under 12; Royal Caribbean is not, but even with children aboard, the vaccination rate aboard the Serenade of the Seas is still above 90%. That’s better than the City and Borough of Juneau, where 74% of residents 12 and older have been vaccinated, according to figures published by the state.
Aboard ship, Royal Caribbean has instituted widespread social-distancing rules, and many communal activities — concerts, casinos and gyms — are limited. But with more crew than passengers, some who disembarked in Juneau on Friday said it had more of the feeling of a luxury cruise.
Boarding tour buses and on whale-watching trips, tourists were told to wear their masks, and local businesses imposed their own restrictions for visitors and locals alike.
On Thursday, the City and Borough of Juneau limited capacity at bars and gyms amid a rising COVID-19 case count. Relatively few of those cases are among non-Alaskans. The state of Alaska recorded 447 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday and Thursday, but only 20 among nonresidents, and only three of those were confirmed to be tourism-related.