After the pandemic caused the cancellation of the 2020 cruise ship season and delayed the 2021 season, large cruise ships started returning to Southeast Alaska’s waters in late July.
While their arrival was welcomed by local tour operators, shop owners and the people who work there, for Juneau’s cruise critics, the shortened season and lighter-than-normal passenger load offered a glimpse of a different operational model but still prompted concerns.
Karla Hart, a Juneau resident and co-founder of the Global Cruise Activist Network, said that the summer “was not intolerable.”
Because of the shortened season and social distancing requirements on each ship, the 2021 cruise season was smaller than a recent non-pandemic year. Often, a single ship was in port and the ship was not full.
“That scale of cruise tourism of one ship a day is a reasonable scale given the size of these ships,” Hart said in a Thursday morning interview with the Empire. “It showed that we can have one low-occupancy cruise ship in a day.”
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.
Paula Terrel, who has criticized the cruise industry and was a member of the Visitor Industry Task Force established by Mayor Beth Weldon, said she was comfortable with the visitor load this summer.
“I felt that it was manageable and in a sense a good way to assess what the lower limits were and how we felt about it. I felt comfortable with the people in town off cruise ships,” Terrel said.
Terrel expressed frustration that the Empire did not publish the number of people arriving each day, as she thought knowing the numbers would have made it easier for members of the public to assess how different passenger loads affected downtown businesses.
The Empire did publish a list of ships in port, but it did not include passenger load because the numbers were not available in advance of press time.
Hart said that because the ships weren’t full, the helicopter tours, whale watching boats and bus traffic were reduced and “relieved some of the pressure” that she says tourism puts on the community.
“When the helicopters started to fly over my house again, it reminded me of why I’m an activist,” she said.
Hart said she didn’t make any calls to the Travel Best Management Practices program hotline this summer.
“That’s partly because I could live with it. But, partly because they never do anything about systemic problems,” Hart said.
Earlier this month, Kirby Day, who has overseen the TBMP program for the last 25 years and works in government and community relations for Holland American Group, said that over the season, the program’s hotline fielded fewer complaints than in 2019, the most recent year the hotline was active. He said that 17 total complaints came in from April through October and that the nature of the calls was pretty typical of an average cruise season.
Hart said she suspects “a lack of transparency” from the cruise industry and the city in reporting COVID-19 cases on ships. She suspects that a “loophole” allowed the cruise lines to omit onboard cases if the affected passenger did not disembark.
“None of the data indicated to me that cruise lines were being transparent and reporting and how many cases were identified,” Hart said. “Indications are strong that Bartlett was involved with cruise-related COVID cases, which means our hospital resources were going to the cruise industry. We don’t know how many people were moved out of Juneau.”
In a phone call late Thursday morning, City and Borough of Juneau City Manager Rorie Watt said he disagreed with Hart’s assessment.
“It seemed pretty clear to me. We regularly got information from the ships,” Watt said. “Anytime we had questions they were very forthcoming.”
Hart and Terrel both expressed concern about the upcoming cruise ship season.
Terrel said she was disappointed to see hot berthing—the practice of moving a ship out of a berth in the afternoon to make room for a second ship that arrives later—on the schedule for the 2022 season.
“I’m concerned about ramping up numbers for next year. It’s pretty heavy,” Terrel said.
She said the members of the Visitor Industry Task Force agreed that they did not want to see hot berthing practiced and that the cruise lines had acknowledged that request.
“I noticed for the 2022 season, they are doing hot berthing every Tuesday at the private dock. To me, that’s disingenuous,” Terrel said.
Hart said that the industry’s growth throughout the region has her concerned.
“It’s full speed on growth for the industry. It needs to be addressed now,” Hart said, adding that other cities in Southeast Alaska are adding dock capacity and that cruise lines based in Europe are considering entering the Alaskan market—two moves that could drive more ships and more passengers.
Eyes on the City
Hart and Terrel both said they are looking forward to seeing the results from the survey the city conducted in October to gauge how residents felt about the 2019 cruise ship season, which was the most recent typical season before COVID-19 paused all travel during the 2020 summer and significantly shortened the 2021 season. The idea of the survey originated with the Visitor Industry Task Force.
Hart said that she’s interested to see the survey results and says that if her views are out-of-step with the vast majority of the community, she may take a step back from her activism.
“I’ve said to myself that if the community survey turns out that only a few of us have concerns, maybe I will step back. If people are fine with where we are going, there are other things I’d like to do with my life,” she said.
Hart said she hopes the city releases the raw data from the survey and doesn’t attempt to influence how people perceive the results.
Both also expressed interest in seeing who fills the city’s full-time tourism manager role, another idea with roots in the task force.
“I’m going to be watching as they hire,” Hart said. “I hope it’s a public process.”
• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-308-4891.