Three short blasts of the horn alerted downtown Juneau’s residents that the Royal Caribbean Serenade of the Seas had pulled into the dock around 7 a.m. Friday morning — the first large-deck ship to call on Juneau since the pandemic began.
A light mist and cloudy skies greeted the ship as it pulled in a few minutes ahead of schedule. A handful of people gathered on the pier to take pictures, and a few prepared to offer passengers shore excursions.
Greg Pilcher prepared a dock-side booth to greet passengers and sell tours. “We heard there’s hardly anyone on board,” he said.
Nearby, representatives from Alaska Galore tours said they were expecting 8-12 passengers who had signed up for halibut and salmon fishing charters.
“It feels amazing to be back on the dock,” said Jamie Letterman, manager of the group.
After a quick cheer from the gangway, passengers slowly started to emerge from the ship.
Passenger Randy Vance of Pueblo, Colorado, said that he was having a “great time” and looked forward to a full day of whale watching, glacier viewing and wilderness touring.
Fellow passenger Christine Keehan of West Palm Beach, Florida, offered a more muted report.
“The voyage has been OK,” she said as she walked off the dock with her young daughter Riley. She said that because her daughter is not yet vaccinated, they were navigating onboard restrictions — including the types of excursions they could take and rules about visiting the dining room.
On the brighter side, Keehan said her family had a great view of the scenery from the deck and they were enjoying a break from Florida’s heat.
“So far, so good,” said Robert Barr, incoming deputy city manager for the City and Borough of Juneau, who was on the dock as passengers disembarked.
Barr said that because bar and restaurant operators are used to COVID-19 mitigation measures, he didn’t expect that Thursday’s change in the community risk level would have much impact on operations. CBJ raised the city’s community risk level to “Level 2-Moderate” at noon Friday, which comes with reduced capacity for bars and encourages restaurants to keep distance between customers.
City Assembly members Wade Bryson and Carole Triem were both at the pier to welcome the ship.
“It’s great to be on the other side of this,” Bryson said, recalling a conversation he had with a resident in March 2020 when ship cancellations started to pile up. “This is quite a relief, especially for people who make their livelihood this way.”
“I saw the ship from my window this morning,” she said. “It feels really good to see it back.”
A rising tide, lifted by many ships
Owners and operators in businesses around downtown greeted the return of the titanic vessels with hope for livelier days.
“It was pretty busy this morning,” said Mya Pecson, working at Kindred Post. “A lot of people were buying local Alaskan art, which makes me very happy.”
While restaurants and businesses were picking up, many expected more of a crowd in the evening as cruise-goers returned from expeditions and tours across the region. There had been several visitors to the bar so far by around noon, said Bonilyn Parker, bartender at the downtown bar the Triangle Club, but she expected to see more as the day wore on.
“We’re definitely seeing a lot of people, a lot of traffic,” said Monday Miles, retail supervisor at the Alaskan Brewing Depot located on Franklin Street. “We’re a little surprised. It was a little busier than we expected. We’re glad to see people.”
Independent travelers had been making a noticeable contribution, said Inari Kylänen, working at the Alaska Robotics Gallery. It remained to be seen if cruise tourists would also have a look in on the speciality book and game store.
“In general, it’s been a lot busier,” said Pecson. “Even before this, there were a lot more independent travelers.”
Other establishments like Tracy’s Crab Shack and the Hangar on the Wharf had seen some early customers from the boat, but generally expected to see more as the evening drew closer.
For others, the recently arrived vessel was a source of concern as the delta variant of the coronavirus is spreading explosively.
“Coming out of Sitka should be enough to have the community concerned,” said Karla Hart, who recently led an initiative to limit cruise ship size and traffic in Juneau.
A warm welcome to Icy Strait Point
Thursday, in Hoonah Alaska Native singing and dancing greeted passengers aboard Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas as it pulled into the dock at Icy Strait Point. It had been 562 days since a cruise ship arrived according to Tyler Hickman, senior vice president of Icy Strait Point. Hickman and other delegates greeted the first guests to step of the ship, a family of three from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and presented them with gifts.
The local economy of Hoonah is highly dependent on tourism and the local Alaska Native corporation, the Huna Totem Corporation, which owns Icy Strait Point. Hickman said roughly 80% of the workforce at Icy Strait Point are Alaska Native shareholders, many of them young people with ties to Hoonah who come to work for the summer. Construction on the site’s new gondola system continued through the pandemic and Thursday’s passengers were able to be the first riders.
The corporation made agreements with cruise ship companies to bring tourists to the site each year, according to Mickey Richardson, director of marketing for Icy Strait Point. Richardson said he’d seen a shift in the cruise ship industry in recent years with cruise companies working to build better relationships with port communities.
Despite vaccine requirements for adult passengers, visitors came off the ship wearing masks and were being asked to wear masks indoors.
A family of three were the first guests to step off the ship and were presented with gifts by staff.
“We’re excited to be here,” said Srini Nambiar of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, as he walked off the ship.
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