June 19, 2021

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Just Do Travel

Ketchikan, Skagway Excited For Cruise Season, But 2021 Visitor Experience Will Be Different

6 min read
In May, President Joe Biden signed a new bill into law to allow cruise ships...

In May, President Joe Biden signed a new bill into law to allow cruise ships to sail from the Lower 48 directly to Alaska this year, ending more than a year of economic drought to the ports that relied so heavily on cruise traffic.

H.R. 1318, the “Alaska Tourism Restoration Act,” allows cruise ships to sail from Washington to Alaska without having to stop in Canada, which is still currently closed to American tourists. For Alaskan towns on the cruise ship circuit, where one in every 10 jobs is in tourism, the news brings hope for economic recovery.

However, tourists jumping on board to cruise to Alaska this year may see a different Alaska than what they have been used to or expected as cities gear up to handle an influx of visitors.

Cruise ship off the Ketchikan, Alaska, coast.
Alaska Travel Industry Association

“In the last couple of weeks, as things started looking like there might be some movement on this particular bill and from the CDC lessening the restrictions that they had originally placed, some of the local businesses were telling me that they started getting calls from cruise lines asking them, ‘If things work out and if we manage to get up here, how many tours can you conceivably do?’” said Patti Mackey, president and CEO of the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau.

“Most of the cruise lines are looking at just a few ships, so that means we’re not going to jump right back into where we would have been in August in a regular year. We are definitely going to be easing back into it.”

Ketchikan, located in Alaska’s Inner Passage, is a popular stop for cruise lines, offering tours to Saxman Village and its plethora of totem poles, fishing excursions, outdoor adventures, and a quaint, quirky village feel.

Saxman Totem Park tour.
Saxman Totem Park tour (Photo Credit: Alabastro Photography)

When COVID-19 forced the cruise industry to halt in 2020, Ketchikan saw its ports of call disappear overnight.

“In 2019, we saw almost 1.2 million cruise visitors, and that was distributed among 46 different cruise ships. When COVID hit, we went down to zero. So no cruise passengers, no stops, no ships — nothing!” Mackey said.

“Having only a few ships this year and not our normal haul will help those tour companies that do need to ramp up their employees get more employees on board and actually start getting ready to operate again.”

Cruise near the mountains of Ketchikan, Alaska.
Alaska Travel Industry Association

What Visitors Can Expect

Christa Hagan, vice president of operations for Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary, LLC and Kawanti Adventures, is one of those tour operators in Ketchikan that is gearing up for new visitors.

In a normal operating year in Ketchikan, Kawanti Adventures offers Adventure Karts, Rainforest Walking Tours, Bear Viewing, Alaska Raptors, Totem Park/Historical Saw Mill, and Blacksmith experiences. This year, the company is limiting its operations in Ketchikan to the Walking/Raptor Tour and Bear Tours, featuring the totem park, historical sawmill, and blacksmith experiences.

As business dropped off in 2020, many workers in the tourism industry sought work elsewhere or had to be furloughed. Regaining those employees may be the biggest challenge for tour operators looking to jump back into the business.

“As a seasonal operator providing contract tours to the cruise lines, we will be without revenue for 23 months since the CDC implemented the no sail order in 2020. We have taken advantage of the PPP and brought back eight furloughed supervisors, however,” said Hagan. “A partial Alaska season is great news; however, we will likely only see an average of one ship a day for seven to eight weeks. While we do have carrying costs throughout the year, our seasonal business model justifies the resumption of tour operations for this shortened season.

“Securing knowledgeable staff willing and available to work a partial summer for seven to eight weeks is our biggest challenge.”

Skagway, another popular Alaskan town for cruise visitors, saw 446 ports of call in 2019 and zero ports of call In 2020. It too now faces the issue of finding enough employees to support a return to tourism.

“Our Mayor is working with other Southeast Alaska port communities and cruise industry representatives to establish a port agreement and a COVID- related port operations plan. While we don’t know how many ships or passengers might call on Skagway, our local businesses and residents are preparing for the possibility,” said Cody Jennings, tourism director for Skagway.

“Some of our local operators are up and running at a reduced capacity. Just what those operations will look like as the summer progresses is too early to tell. Skagway was recently honored with the Friendliest Small Town in TravelAwaits Best of Travel 2021 Awards, and we definitely want you to experience it for yourself. Get out and explore and engage with our shop owners, your tour guides, and servers in our bars and restaurants.”

Cruise ship off the coast of Skagway, Alaska.
Cruise ship off the coast of Skagway, Alaska (Photo Credit: Frank Flavin)

What Visitors Need To Know

Smaller tour options and a slower pace may face new and returning travelers to Alaska’s port towns, but officials say they will be ready.

Ketchikan continued to offer excursions throughout 2020, even without the cruise ship traffic.

“While we don’t currently have a lot of larger operators who really depend on the volume industry, most of our businesses are offering tours of some kind, maybe just not all day, every day,” said Mackey.

“Going into this summer and thinking it was going to be independent travel, we actually put a tour excursion page on our calendar on our website. Cruise passengers typically purchase from those ships, and that will be available. I encourage people to do a little extra homework to make sure the things they want to do are actually in operation.”

According to Visit Ketchikan, visitors entering Alaska from another state or country are requested to submit a travel declaration through the Alaska Traveler Portal, and any person currently positive for COVID-19 cannot travel to Alaska until they have been released from isolation or cleared for travel by a medical provider or public health agency. 

While no longer required, travelers arriving in Alaska from outside the state should consider having a pre-travel molecular-based test for SARS-CoV2. Travelers should submit negative test results from a test taken within 72 hours of departure into the Alaska Travel Portal or have proof of a negative test available to show screeners at the airport upon arrival.

“All of the visitor bureaus have COVID information pages. For example, the state has created a visitor app where they can upload either their negative test results or share their vaccination record with us,” said Mackey. “But Alaska has stepped back from requiring testing.”

Most of the port cities also have COVID safety measures in place. Skagway, for instance, has a high vaccination rate with more than 700 full vaccinations administered to its average population of 1,000 people.

“We are COVID-conscious in Skagway. Many businesses are signing on to our Safe Skagway Pledge, committing to sanitation measures for their businesses and other best practices to keep their employees and guests safe,” said Jennings. “Look for the symbol on display in participating businesses.”

Although the cruise traffic won’t return to pre-COVID numbers this year, even a limited season is good news for travelers.

“With fewer cruise ship ports of call in Skagway, we will be seeing far fewer visitors than we traditionally do, so this will give folks a rare opportunity to explore our historic downtown, our trails, and everything in between in a very personal way,” said Jennings.

“It’s important for visitors to know that we are excited to host them in our communities and both city and borough officials and excursion partners are working closely with the cruise lines to ensure we have a healthy and safe operating season. We will be ready!” said Hagan.