When the Serenade of the Seas arrived in Juneau early on July 23, the Royal Caribbean ship was the first large cruise ship to call on the capital city since the pandemic caused the cancellation of the 2020 cruise ship season and delayed the 2021 season.
After several months of legal wrangling, changing health guidelines and with vaccines widely available, large cruise ships started plying Southeast Alaska’s waters to the relief of local tour operators, shop owners and the people who work there.
The season started later than usual and ended later—with voyages continuing until October 20. By every measure, the season was smaller than a recent non-pandemic year. Passenger loads, revenues and complaints were all down.
According to statistics provided by City and Borough of Juneau Docks and Harbors, when the last ship sailed from Juneau’s harbor, a total of 123,018 passengers had visited the city—the majority on large deck cruise ships. About 7,300 passengers sailed through on small ships. Together, that accounts for about 10% of the cruise ship passengers that visit Juneau in a more typical year.
Collectively, cruise ship passengers paid more than $950,000 in fees to the City and Borough of Juneau, which collects marine passenger fees, assesses port charges and uses a schedule of other fees based on various factors like ship tonnage.
The passengers arrived on a smaller fleet of ships this year, with vessels such as the Disney Wonder, the Emerald Princess, the Norwegian Bliss, the Radiance of the Seas and the Carnival Freedom skipping Juneau entirely this season.
However, several large ships made nearly weekly visits, including the Norwegian Encore and the Ovation of the Seas.
The ships that did arrive were not full, as cruise line operators worked to provide ample space for social distancing in line with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggestions.
In addition, ships generally required all—or nearly all—passengers to be vaccinated, this excluded children under the age of 12, who were not eligible for vaccinations until early November. The rules likely reduced the number of families who embarked on a cruise vacation.
Schedule changes ‘
The late start and reduced fleet led to shifting schedules.
“One of the tougher things is the cruise ships normally follow a regular schedule,” said Scott Hinton, port operations supervisor. “This year they jumped around a little bit, which made it more challenging.”
Hinton and his crew of ten 10 employees provide security for the cruise ships and ensure the port follows all Coast Guard regulations.
Hinton said that the Silver Muse’s itinerary, which featured an overnight stay in Juneau each week this season, was unusual. He said vessels typically overnight in port due to mechanical problems. He noted that securing regular, overnight staffing was challenging.
In addition to starting later in the summer, this year’s cruise schedule lasted into mid-October, rather than wrapping up in late September or early October, as it typically does.
Hinton said that Alaska’s autumn weather could be brutal, and winds caused a few ships to reschedule or change docks this year.
But, Hinton said that Alaska’s cool fall air, frequent rain, and wind didn’t seem to bother most passengers who made it in.
“People would get off the ship and tell us they were happy to see some real Alaskan weather,” he said. “They say, it was 102 degrees where I come from, it’s good to get out of the heat.”
Complaints were down
In a Tuesday morning phone interview, Kirby Day, who has overseen the Tourism Best Management Practices program for the last 25 years and works in government and community relations for Holland American Group, said that over the season, the TBMP hotline fielded 17 total complaints from April through October and that a complete account of them will appear on the city’s website, soon.
He said that seven of the complaints happened in July. Ten of the season’s calls involved vehicle issues like buses parking in the wrong area at the Mendenhall Glacier or taxis taking visitors to Cope Park as a tourist destination, which, he said, is discouraged.
“We had a few calls about cruise ship noise,” he said. “One ship forgot to turn off the public address system in port and people could hear the announcements.”
Day attributed the incident to a lack of practice after so many months without sailing.
He said overall, calls were typical of those that come in any year.
“Prior to the season starting, I talked to the operators and said regardless of the number of people coming and the number of businesses that are operating, we have to operate just like a regular summer. That’s what the people expect,” he said.
Laura Achee, public information officer for Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation, reported one complaint to the water division and two to the air quality division — both of the air reports originated in Juneau.
In an email, she said both reports had been investigated with no further action taken.
In a more typical year the number of air complaints varies but is generally higher. In 2018, there were 152 complaints and in 2017 there were 71, according to DEC data. There were no complaints in 2016 and four in 2015.
Day said that TBMP received more calls in 2019 than 2018, but he said that was because of a community-wide push that encouraged people to report violations.
“In 2019, we really encouraged people to use the hotline. If we don’t get resident feedback, we don’t know how we are doing,” Day said.
Despite the smaller numbers, local officials report optimism for next season and gratitude that Alaska had any type of season.
In August, when the abbreviated season was first underway, Day told the Empire he was happy to see the passengers.
“People are happy, laughing, joking,and enjoying themselves,” Day said. “There is a pent up desire for people to travel and go someplace.”
Day called the start of the season a step in the right direction for local businesses.
“What’s super important for the community is to have some stream of revenue starting up. Many businesses were on the edge,” he said in August.
Local officials are looking forward to a robust return to large deck cruising next season despite two tough years. The website for the Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska shows the first ship calling on Juneau on Monday, April 25, 2022.
“I think it’s going to be great. I’m anticipating a full schedule of ships,” Hinton said, adding that he’s not sure how many passengers will arrive. But, he anticipates hiring a larger crew to manage the dock.
Day shares Hinton’s enthusiasm for the 2022 season.
“I think it will rebound next year. People are excited to travel and excited to come to Alaska,” Day said. “What that means in terms of numbers, I don’t know. But, you gotta believe by next spring and summer that we will be mostly past this and people will want to travel. Alaska is a place that people have a high interest in visiting.”
• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at email@example.com or 907-308-4891.