The Serenade of the Seas arrives in Juneau early Friday morning. The Royal Caribbean cruise ship is the first large cruise ship to come to Juneau since the pandemic caused the cancellation of the 2020 cruise ship season and delayed the 2021 season. (Dana Zigmund / Juneau Empire)

The Serenade of the Seas arrives in Juneau early Friday morning. The Royal Caribbean cruise ship is the first large cruise ship to come to Juneau since the pandemic caused the cancellation of the 2020 cruise ship season and delayed the 2021 season. (Dana Zigmund / Juneau Empire)

They’re back: Large cruise ships return to Southeast Alaska

Juneau’s first large cruise ship since start of the pandemic arrived today.

This story has been updated to include more information.

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.”

Triem agreed.

“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

Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas pulls into Icy Point Strait in Hoonah, on Thursday, July 22, 2021, the first large cruise ship to arrive in over a year. Delegates from the Hoonah Totem Corporation, Royal Caribbean and the City of Hoonah greeted guests as they came off the boat. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas pulls into Icy Point Strait in Hoonah, on Thursday, July 22, 2021, the first large cruise ship to arrive in over a year. Delegates from the Hoonah Totem Corporation, Royal Caribbean and the City of Hoonah greeted guests as they came off the boat. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

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.

Crew members were getting ready to tie up Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas at Icy Strait Point in Hoonah on Thursday, July 22, 2021, the first large cruise ship to arrive in Southeast Alaska in over a year. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Crew members were getting ready to tie up Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas at Icy Strait Point in Hoonah on Thursday, July 22, 2021, the first large cruise ship to arrive in Southeast Alaska in over a year. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

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.

Construction on the gondola system at Icy Strait Point in Hoonah was able to continue during the pandemic, and when cruise ship visitors returned on Thursday, July 22, 2021, guests were able to take the first rides. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Construction on the gondola system at Icy Strait Point in Hoonah was able to continue during the pandemic, and when cruise ship visitors returned on Thursday, July 22, 2021, guests were able to take the first rides. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

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.

Representatives from Icy Strait Point, Royal Caribbean, the City of Hoonah and Alaska Native dancers greeted the Serenade of the Seas as it arrived in Hoonah on Thursday, July 22, 2021. According to Tyler Hickman, senior vice president of Icy Strait Point, it had been 562 days since a cruise ship had arrived in Hoonah. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Representatives from Icy Strait Point, Royal Caribbean, the City of Hoonah and Alaska Native dancers greeted the Serenade of the Seas as it arrived in Hoonah on Thursday, July 22, 2021. According to Tyler Hickman, senior vice president of Icy Strait Point, it had been 562 days since a cruise ship had arrived in Hoonah. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Contact the Juneau Empire newsroom at (907)308-4895.

See photos of the ship below:

photos by Peter Segall / Juneau Empire 
The Serenade of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, berths in Hoonah on Thursday. The ship is scheduled to arrive in Juneau Friday morning.

photos by Peter Segall / Juneau Empire The Serenade of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, berths in Hoonah on Thursday. The ship is scheduled to arrive in Juneau Friday morning.

Tyler Hickman, senior vice president of Icy Strait Point, greets members of the Nambiar family from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the first visitors to Hoonah to come off a cruise ship in over a year. Alaska Native singers and dancers met passengers as they disembarked. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Tyler Hickman, senior vice president of Icy Strait Point, greets members of the Nambiar family from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the first visitors to Hoonah to come off a cruise ship in over a year. Alaska Native singers and dancers met passengers as they disembarked. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

The Serenade of the Seas arrived in Juneau early Friday morning, seen here moored downtown. The Royal Caribbean cruise ship is the first large cruise ship to come to Juneau since the pandemic caused the cancellation of the 2020 cruise ship season and delayed the 2021 season. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

The Serenade of the Seas arrived in Juneau early Friday morning, seen here moored downtown. The Royal Caribbean cruise ship is the first large cruise ship to come to Juneau since the pandemic caused the cancellation of the 2020 cruise ship season and delayed the 2021 season. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Tourists congregate in front of the Serenade of the Seas, seen here moored downtown, on Friday morning. The Royal Caribbean cruise ship is the first large cruise ship to come to Juneau since the pandemic caused the cancellation of the 2020 cruise ship season and delayed the 2021 season. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Tourists congregate in front of the Serenade of the Seas, seen here moored downtown, on Friday morning. The Royal Caribbean cruise ship is the first large cruise ship to come to Juneau since the pandemic caused the cancellation of the 2020 cruise ship season and delayed the 2021 season. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

The Serenade of the Seas arrived in Juneau early Friday morning, seen here moored downtown. The Royal Caribbean cruise ship is the first large cruise ship to come to Juneau since the pandemic caused the cancellation of the 2020 cruise ship season and delayed the 2021 season. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

The Serenade of the Seas arrived in Juneau early Friday morning, seen here moored downtown. The Royal Caribbean cruise ship is the first large cruise ship to come to Juneau since the pandemic caused the cancellation of the 2020 cruise ship season and delayed the 2021 season. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

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