Haines is known to visitors for many things — white water rafting, fishing, biking, camping and heli-skiing — but tourism is still widely reduced this summer due to the pandemic.
Haines Tourism Director Steven Auch estimates the activity is at about a quarter of a typical year as the international border remains restricted to non-essential travel.
“With the border closed, that’s cut off a bunch of our normal traffic. And also without cruise ships here, of course, we know that that’s a large impact on our visitor base,” Auch said. “So just off the top of my head, I guess it would be in the range of maybe 20 or 25 percent.”
The most significant crowds are seen via the one cruise ship making port in Haines this summer, the American Constellation. It carries up to 170 passengers that come into town for day trips in Haines or rafting or wildlife viewing on the Chilkat River.
That’s been the focus of business for tour operators like Rainbow Glacier Adventures, says co-owner Joe Ordóñez. He says they only decided to operate after learning cruise passengers are required to be vaccinated, and overall err on the side of caution, and lead separate private tours.
“But really, we’re looking at, if we get 10% of the volume of business we had in 2019, we’ll be happy that that’s where we’re at,” Ordóñez said. “So certainly not some dramatically great year. But we got people working, we’re taking people out. We’re doing what we love to do, which is connect our guests with Alaska. And we’re doing it, so that feels good.”
Ordonez says they hired local guides for one to two tours a week this year, compared to summer workers for five or seven days a week of work.
On Haines’ Main Street, the Rusty Compass Coffeehouse is seeing a steady stream of visitors and locals. Sixteen-year-old barista McKenzie Dryden has worked there for three summers now, and she says business and tips are good.
“Overall, it’s been a steady kind of busy,” Dryden said. “Not like a “can’t keep up with it,” too busy. There are some days we’re really busy and some days we’re slow, and we can catch up on stuff.”
In a typical summer, the huge commercial cruise ships docking in Skagway bring more than a million people each summer, and some ferry over to Haines for the day.
But just a half dozen cruise ships are expected to visit Skagway, and they’re coming later in the summer. The fast ferry to Haines will be operating, but just taking cruise ship passengers to designated tours, not to explore or stay in Haines.
Sockeye Cycles operates guided bike tours around Haines and Skagway. Co-owner Dustin Craney says that because the 2021 cruise season will be curtailed, they’ve been able to adapt to multi-day tours with independent travelers.
“We really focused on that market,” Craney said. “So we’ve met a number of people that have come and taken a tour or rented a bike that have spent some time in Juneau and some time in Haines and some time in Skagway and other places and used either the Alaska marine lines or the Fjordland Ferry to get back and forth and kind of plan their own week or a couple week long adventure of the area and just incorporated us as a small part.”
Craney says it will be a game-changer when the U.S.-Canadian border reopens because some of their most popular trips are into the Yukon, especially biking from Haines to Skagway.
Haines Tourism Director Steven Auch says the state advertising Alaska as a COVID-safe, outdoor-oriented tourist destination has helped. And although remote, the Upper Lynn Canal is connected to the wider pandemic outlook.
“If things continue on this positive trajectory in terms of the pandemic, we’re expecting to see more travelers as a whole. The cruise industry return. Hopefully the border will be open…we’d like it to be open tomorrow if possible,” Auch laughed. “But we don’t expect that for a little while longer.”
Haines tourism operators are optimistic for more activity next year, and hopes for opening the Canadian border are high, but that could be a ways off.