Passengers return to the Norwegian Sun cruise ship early Wednesday evening, the final ship to visit Juneau this year. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Passengers return to the Norwegian Sun cruise ship early Wednesday evening, the final ship to visit Juneau this year. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Sun sets on record cruise ship season

1.65 million passengers representing 101% of ship capacity visited Juneau, preliminary figures show.

Shane Carl was among the last of the record 1,646,862 cruise ship passengers in Juneau this year, according to a preliminary count, examining jewelry in a shop a few hundred yards from the final ship of the season a couple of hours before its departure Wednesday evening. It was dark, temperatures were below freezing and a steady wind was blowing.

All of which suited the resident of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, just fine.

“I wanted to experience cold,” he said. “I knew it would be cold because the summers I hear are warmish, I heard. And I wanted to see the northern lights. But also the prices were great. It was toward the end of the season and I knew there’d be a lot of sales. And it did not disappoint.”

Other passengers from the 1,936-passenger Norwegian Sun also offered rave reviews about the final day of the cruise ship season, in part due to clear skies rather than the record rainfall that hit Juneau exactly one week earlier.

“I think we’re lucky,” said Melinda Hoff, of Bowling Green, Kentucky, carrying a large colorful bag from a local t-shirt shop as she neared the ship. “Well, we should be rewarded. We are the last cruise of the season for this ship here, so we should be rewarded for taking the chance and coming this late in the season.”

George Lacek (left), Diane Edwards (middle) and LaDele Sines discuss how they spent the last day of the cruise ship season near the Patsy Ann statue next to their ship Wednesday evening. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

George Lacek (left), Diane Edwards (middle) and LaDele Sines discuss how they spent the last day of the cruise ship season near the Patsy Ann statue next to their ship Wednesday evening. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The season has extended further into what used to be the off-season over the years, which along with bigger ships has resulted in new visitor records being set regularly, with this year’s total representing the first full rebound since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019.

The unaudited numbers for the season that ended Wednesday include 1,638,902 passengers on large cruise ships and 7,960 passengers on small cruise vessels, according to Carl Uchytil, the city’s port director.

“The total capacity was 1,618,348; therefore, on average the ships sailed at 101% of capacity,” he stated in an email Wednesday afternoon.

City officials predicted before the season a total of 1.67 million visitors this year, about 30% more than the total in 2019. The total last year — the first without significant pandemic-related restrictions — was about 1.15 million representing 74% of the ships’ capacity, with many vessels starting the season at half or less of capacity and increasing as the months progressed.

Concerns about impacts due to the high volume of cruise tourists resulted in an agreement between major cruise lines and the city for a five-ship daily limit in 2024.

Shane Carl (left) examines rings being sold by Yun Yuan at her shop Wild Melody near the downtown cruise ship dock on Wednesday evening. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Shane Carl (left) examines rings being sold by Yun Yuan at her shop Wild Melody near the downtown cruise ship dock on Wednesday evening. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

While some shops and tours halted operations before the last-day guests arrived, a steady — if not heavy — flow of visitors was seen in various establishments downtown as darkness set in. Carl bought a couple of rings from Wild Melody, one of the shops nearest the ship, where owner Yun Yuan said she spent much of Wednesday reading books and watching movies during non-busy periods — yet had no regrets about staying open.

“Any pennies are worth it to me to pay the rent,” she said. “For the seven months during the winter we don’t have any business.”

Yuan said she spends those months making the jewelry her store sells.

Other visitors found ways to stay warm while visiting local establishments.

“We went to the Red Dog and then we went up the street to another pub, and then the Alaskan Hotel was open so we stopped there,” said Diane Edwards, a Seattle resident, who was reading the storyboards next to the Patsy Ann statue a few dozen yards from the cruise ship.

“And we went up the tram,” her sister, LaDele Sines, a former Juneau tourism worker now living in Seattle, added. “We went up the tram and had a hot toddy first.”

Both of them said the low price of the cruise was a draw — so much so that they, like many interviewed, said they booked single-occupancy cabins that normally carry hefty surcharges — and would return at this time next season given the opportunity.

“It’s beautiful, even if the shops aren’t open,” Sines said. “I mean, nature is open. You can go for a hike. You can wander around town. Visit locals. Which is what I prefer to do anyway.”

Some highlight tours were still operating, including a bus trip to the Mendenhall Glacier that had 49 people aboard, said George Lacek, of Clifton, New Jersey, who said there was time to hike trails there during the stop. He also said a visit aboard the cruise ship to Glacier Bay the previous day was spectacular due to clear and cold weather that offered an uninhibited view.

“They were saying it was the best weather in over a month,” he said.

As the final minutes ticked away before the passengers were required to be back on board the ship, a handful at a time were still visiting the Rustic Alaskan Crafts gift shop. Donna Sutherland, working the final evening shift there after her daytime job for the state, said the store did a strong amount of business during the weekend even though no ships were in town, apparently from local residents, so even though the cruise season is ending it isn’t the end of the season for the shop.

“The owner is going to have me stay open on Saturdays, and then we’re going to do First Fridays…and then through Christmas to the locals,” she said. “Just trying to try and get people to come out.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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