Most summers, Icy Strait Point near Hoonah, Alaska — population 760 — is filled with cruise passengers visiting restaurants and shops, whale watching, exploring on all-terrain vehicles, or hollering down a more-than-mile-long zip line. The destination expected 450,000 visitors this year.
“We haven’t had a ship yet,” said Tyler Hickman, the senior vice president of Icy Strait Point. It has not yet opened as a result.
“The place is just so incredible, you just walk around and wish there was more people here to experience it with you,” he said.
That’s the story across Alaska, which had been in the midst of a seemingly unstoppable boom in cruise growth. The state was anticipating about 1.4 million cruise visitors during the season that stretches from late April until early October — a record.
So far, 99% of the projected capacity has been canceled, says Mike Tibbles, vice president of government and community affairs for Cruise Lines International Association Alaska.
“This is tough news for not only for all the local businesses and employees who depend on cruise passenger spending but also tough for local communities who rely on taxes generated from passenger spending,” he said in an email. Tibbles said cancellation of the entire cruise season would result in a loss of about $1 billion in direct spending.
Overall, Alaska tourism officials expected 2.2 million total visitors throughout the year.
“We don’t expect the volume of visitors to reach any kind of level that was projected,” said Sarah Leonard, president and chief executive of the Alaska Travel Industry Association. “We are seeing some travelers that are following the mandates come through the airport.”
Earlier this month, the state rolled out requirements for visitors that include negative test results before heading to Alaska, which must be confirmed with a second test after arriving; testing upon arrival; and quarantining until results are known or for 14 days.
“Alaska does want to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus among Alaskans, but also for our guests; we want to provide a safe experience and still welcome people to Alaska,” Leonard said. “It’s about safety and health and operating responsibly, and I guess it’s the way of the world now if people are traveling in a pandemic.”
Major cruise lines have not yet worked out their plans for safely returning to sea since pausing all operations in mid-March, and a no-sail order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is keeping ships that can carry more than 250 people from sailing through at least July 24. An industry association recently announced that members would extend cancellations through at least Sept. 15 — close to the end of the cruise season in Alaska.
Ports in Seattle and Canada, where most Alaskan cruise itineraries start, are still closed to cruise traffic. Seattle has given no date for reopening, and Canada has said larger ships are prohibited through the end of October.
Some in Alaska are still watching Norwegian Cruise Line, which said last week that it was “hopeful that through the support of the Alaska delegation and openness of mayors of Alaska port towns, we have the potential to resume voyages in September.”
Still, at this point the biggest hope to salvage any kind of cruise traffic appears to be with small U.S.-based lines that aren’t subject to the CDC order or required to visit any ports in Canada. UnCruise Adventures, a small-ship operator with ships that can carry between 22 and 86 passengers, said last week that it plans to start weeklong Alaska sailings on Aug. 1 featuring remote wilderness hikes and solitude.
“The market is showing a growing interest in off-the-beaten-path destinations and that is what we do best,” owner and chief executive Dan Blanchard said in an announcement. “We’ve been social distancing since 1996.”
For now, Alaska residents describe an unusually quiet scene in areas that would normally be buzzing with visitors and seasonal workers.
“You go downtown and you expect to see four ships in and all the docks are empty,” said Tibbles, who lives in Juneau.
Neil McDermott, who owns A Whale’s Song Expeditions in Sitka, said that this summer he’s planning to do some home projects and explore some adventure expedition tour options for next year. With the “trickle” of tourists he expects to get, McDermott said he could be looking at $3,000 in sales for the year. That’s a far cry from the $160,000 in sales he expected to bring in, mostly from cruise passengers.
“I was expecting a great year and had just purchased a new boat and repowered it at $220,000,” he said in an email.
In Ketchikan, another popular cruise stop, some seasonal businesses are cutting hours, while others are just staying closed because they can’t afford the expenses of opening to minimal traffic, according to Patti Mackey, president and chief executive of the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau.
A survey the group conducted in May showed that only 27 percent of local companies believed they could endure if it took until spring of 2021 for business to resume.
“They all make their money in the summer and that’s what they live off of,” Mackey said. “Most of these businesses haven’t had any real influx of cash into their business since October. Now these folks are going to have to make it all the way into April or May of next year, and that’s an 18-month period of not bringing in any income.”
Tourism and cruise industry officials are hopeful that next year’s big visitor projections will come to be.
“That part of things is looking good for us, it just depends on what happens in between,” Mackey said.
In the meantime, the state is looking to its own residents to make up for some — though nowhere near all — of the loss. A campaign urging locals to “show up for Alaska” is offering discounts and other incentives for in-state travel.
“There’s an opportunity in a weird way for Alaskans to experience their own backyard,” Leonard said. “Because it’s a little less busy and we have those wild open spaces for people to socially distance and still have a really great Alaskan adventure experience.”