The tourism season is expected to return to Alaska in force this summer. In Juneau, local businesses are working hard to make sure they’re staffed up for the season.
The cruise ship industry is back, though not yet in full force, according to Brian Salerno, senior vice president of global maritime policy at Cruise Lines International Association, a global cruise industry trade association, but companies are expecting cruising to return to pre-COVID-19 pandemic numbers in the near future.
“We’re expecting a really good year, the latest estimate is somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.5 million (passengers),” Salerno told the Empire in an interview. “When the season starts we won’t be completely full. I’d say overall the industry is not 100% back yet but we’re getting closer.”
The first large cruise ship of the season — Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Bliss —will arrive in Juneau at 1:30 p.m. on Monday, April 25, and two more ships will arrive on Wednesday and Friday of that week, according to the Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska 2022 calendar. Starting the following week at least one large cruise ship will arrive every day until Sept. 27, and the last ship of the season leaves Oct. 18.
Salerno said the industry is eager to return to the region, and that most ships had high rates of COVID-19 vaccinations and protocols in place for dealing with outbreaks onboard.
“I know our members are really excited to get back to Alaska,” Salerno said. “There’s a lot of demand, it’s on a lot of people’s bucket list and we’re glad that they choose cruise ships.”
Before the pandemic the number of cruise ship passengers arriving in Juneau was steadily increasing. In 2019 — the last full cruise ship season before the pandemic — there was a record 1.2 million arrivals, according to regional development corporation Southeast Conference. But in 2020 there were only 48 passengers aboard small cruise ships, according to Southeast Conference’s annual Southeast by the Numbers report for 2021, and the truncated 2021 season was estimated to be about one-tenth of a recent tourism season.
With the expected return of a full tourist season, local businesses are trying to rebuild the labor pools that were diminished by two years of uncertainty.
“I’ve staffed up adequately to start my season well,” said Serene Hutchinson, general manager of Juneau Tour Inc.
Hutchinson said she believed the 2022 tourist season would be busy, but said the estimate of 1.5 million passengers seemed high. She also said she had an advantage when recruiting.
“I provide employee housing, which made it doable,” Hutchinson said of her recruitment efforts.
In the past employees have been able to find housing on their own, Hutchinson said, but this year she’s had to house employees herself and had potential recruits decline offers due to lack of housing.
“I’m finding the people,” Hutchinson said. “I did have to overall raise my payscale, anywhere from 5-20% depending on the job. I raised my payscale and provided housing and found (hiring) harder than normal but not impossible.”
In a typical year, Hutchinson said she’ll hire between 80-90 people, but this year has about 60. While she tries to hire locals that’s been more difficult this year, too. Hutchinson estimated in past years about 40% of her staff were local, particularly bus drivers and other workers that hold special credentials, and said that in the past many of those workers would return annually.
But after two years of little to no tourist season many local workers haven’t returned, Hutchinson said, and that’s an issue other employers are facing as well.
Craig Jennsion is vice president of tours and marketing for TEMSCO Helicopters Inc. and said he too was having trouble finding local recruits and that potential hires had declined job offers because they couldn’t find housing.
“When we find a local employee we count on having them for two years,” Jennison said. “Now we’re having to replace the majority of that staff, it’s just a much larger number we’re trying to get in the door.”
TEMSCO has upped its presence at job fairs and been in contact with local schools, Jennision said, but in past years the company was able to shore up most of its hiring in February. At this rate, Jennsion said, the company will likely be hiring into July.
“We’re shooting for 50 (employees) and we still have a ways to go,” Jennison said.
Zak Kirkpatrick, chief marketing officer for Allen Marine, said his company was facing those same issues.
“Probably like you’re hearing from many operators, not just within the tourism space, it’s been a real challenge this year,” Kirkpatrick said of hiring. “We’ve got dozens more positions to fill, all our managers and staff are recruiting as best they can.”
All three employers said they like to recruit local high school or university students for many of the unskilled jobs such as desk workers and dock representatives, but said even those recruits were harder to come by. But even with recruitment troubles, employers said sales were good and they were optimistic for a busy season.
A return of old tensions?
Before the pandemic, the growing footprint of the industry led to pushback from some locals and calls for the City and Borough of Juneau to better manage the impact of the thousands of daily visitors to the area. In 2019, the city created a Visitor Industry Task Force to better address local concerns about traffic, pollution and other issues related to the cruise ships, and in 2020, some residents joined the international advocacy group Global Cruise Activist Network to seek limits on cruise ships in Juneau.
One of those local activists was Karla Hart, a member of Juneau Cruise Control, which in 2021 attempted to put three initiatives limiting cruise ship in Juneau on the municipal ballot. The group failed to collect enough signatures to get those initiatives on the ballot, and Hart told the Empire in an interview she was waiting to see how the tourism season played out.
“The industry might take care of itself,” Hart said. “People are not flocking back to the cruise ships like (cruise ship companies) have been pretending.”
Hart said cruise companies were not being transparent with local communities about how many passengers have actually booked, and suggested local businesses may be overstaffing in anticipation of a busy season that may not materialize. Hart said some of the industry’s business practices and financial influence in the area would cause resentment among locals, including some merchants. Hart said a new digital payment method from Princess Cruise Lines was eating into shoreside businesses with high commission fees in places where its been used such as Mexico and the Caribbean.
“The industry is really hungry and the industry has an upper hand,” Hart said.
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.