ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Nearly half of the 1.4 million cruise ship passengers projected to visit Alaska have had their plans canceled this year, with the biggest blow occurring this week when two industry giants all but set aside their Alaska seasons over concerns with the coronavirus.
The announcement by Holland America Line and Princess Cruises will leave hotels and motels flashing vacancy signs and owners hoping locals will fill empty tables in restaurants during the height of the summer tourist season.
Each passenger spends on average $624 in Alaska during their cruise, according to state estimates, meaning Alaska businesses that survive on the tourism trade will be missing out on more than $433 million this summer.
Christie Stoltz, the manager-owner of Meandering Moose Lodging in Talkeenta, said she wasn’t totally shocked by Tuesday’s announcement by the cruise ship companies because cancellations have been trickling in.
“The amount of money that’s going to be lost, that was shocking to me,” she said Wednesday. She’s planning for no guests during May and June and hoping for 50% occupancy for the rest of the summer in the quirky tourist town near Denali, the continent’s tallest peak.
“In 2019, Alaska’s visitor industry supported more than 52,000 jobs and created more than $4.5 billion in economic activity for Alaska,” Sarah Leonard, the president and CEO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association, said in a statement. “This announcement makes state and federal assistance for Alaska’s tourism businesses all the more imperative so that they may reopen successfully once it is safe for people to travel again.”
Princess Cruises cancelled all Alaska gulf cruises and tours, and said its five wilderness lodges wouldn’t open. Trains and buses also won’t operate this summer. It said round-trip sailings from Seattle to Alaska on two ships, the Emerald Princess and Ruby Princess, would continue.
Likewise on Tuesday, Holland America Line canceled all Alaska sailings for the summer on five large cruise ships and axed overland journeys to Denali and the Yukon. In addition, it will not operate its McKinley Chalet Resort, its rail car or motor coaches.
“We remain optimistic that Koningsdam and Eurodam will still be able to offer roundtrip cruises from Seattle and Vancouver for part of the summer. We will continue to assess these plans over the next several weeks,” Holland America spokesman Erik Elvejord said in an email to The Associated Press.
The announcement affects communities across most of Alaska, from inland places like Talkeetna and Fairbanks, where tourists arrive by train ride or coach, to Ketchikan, the state’s southernmost port of call and where cruise ships typically make their first or last visit.
Before the virus changed everything, Ketchikan was expecting 608 port calls this summer from 52 different vessels, said Patti Mackey, president and CEO of Ketchikan Visitors Bureau. Now, that count is down to 277 port calls.
She described the mood in Ketchikan as that “punch-in-the-gut feeling, yet you kind of knew it was coming.”
Store owners in Ketchikan began planning different scenarios as the virus kept changing plans and expectations of when the ships might arrive.
“I think people are just trying to get their heads around it and plan for what the season is looking like it’s shaping up to be,” she said. “I think everyone’s hoping that once things settle down and people feel comfortable traveling again, that we may see some visitation this summer.”
Not having tourists spending money will affect everything from the city tax collections to nearly every shop and store in the city, including Alaska’s oldest business.
The Tongass Trading Co. claims that title, saying it’s been in business continuously since 1898. It’s an old general store that has evolved to encompass 11 businesses in six buildings, selling everything from clothing, footwear, sporting goods, furniture, hardware items and souvenirs, said Chris Parks, the general manager and president.
Parks said most people he’s talked to are hoping there will be some ships in the second half of the summer. “I’ve basically planned on having no ships at all, and if we get some, great. It’s a bonus,” he said.