Alaska tourism businesses expect a lean year ahead

Last week, as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, most cross-gulf cruises were canceled for the summer. In addition to their cruise ship fleets, Princess and Holland America also own several hotels along the Railbelt, from Cooper Landing to Fairbanks, that will remain closed.

Cruise ships are not the only way people come to Alaska. Lots of them fly. Some of them drive. But the cruise industry is a cornerstone of the visitor industry around Alaska. In fact, those of us who fancy ourselves “independent travelers” enjoy the extensive infrastructure developed to serve the cruise travelers.

Many of the cool tours and adventures we love to do in the summer are made possible because cruise companies buy up big blocks of inventory months in advance.

Tom Tougas is knee-deep in the Alaska travel business. Like many local tourism entrepreneurs, Tougas worked for Holland America before starting his own business. Based in Seward, Tougas runs Major Marine Tours and the Harbor 360 Hotel. While Major Marine runs wildlife and glacier cruises from March through October, the hotel is open year-round.

“Our biggest market is visiting friends and relatives (VFR),” Tougas said. “That segment is at least twice as important to us as the cruise lines.”

In spite of the cruise cancellations, Tougas plans to offer his day trips from Seward this year. Major Marine has a new boat, the Kenai Fjords 360, which accommodates 150 people. But with current social distancing requirements, Major Marine will only take 50 passengers per trip. “Everybody has assigned seating — and each party has their own table,” he said.

But Tougas said the fastest-growing part of Alaska’s travel market is youth-oriented adventure travel. Most of the new businesses are small, family-owned Alaska businesses, he said. “They came to Alaska as kayak guides and now they’re starting adventure tour companies. They have a dream and they’re working away on it,” he said.

“I think that’s the first market that will come back — adventure-oriented travel, searching for wide-open spaces. There’s still a lot of pent-up demand for independent travel to Alaska. But the governor will have to lift the restrictions on restaurants and airplanes,” said Tougas.

Candice McDonald Kotyk started Salmon Berry Tours after working at Holland America as an operations manager. During the summer, her fleet of eight 16-passenger Sprinter vans takes visitors around Southcentral Alaska. “We do a Matanuska Glacier tour, which includes guiding on the glacier with all the gear, plus a lunch,” she said. Salmon Berry also offers a summertime “eco tour” of Anchorage, which includes a visit to the Alaska Botanical Gardens, Campbell Creek and the fish hatchery near Ship Creek.

In the winter, Salmon Berry does multiday trips between Anchorage and Fairbanks.

“We’re drastically affected by the cruise line’s announcement,” she said. “This announcement has triggered more cancellations. A lot of people were coming on cruises.”

In lieu of doing tours, Salmon Berry now is offering grocery delivery services from Anchorage to Bird, Indian, Girdwood and Hatcher Pass. They’re also offering plant delivery for Alaska Mill and Feed. “We’re trying to stay afloat,” McDonald Kotyk said.

“We’re in a good position to help people when things loosen up a bit. Our small vans are good for private tours. We’re a safe choice,” she said.

At the end of the Homer Spit, Land’s End Resort offers a beautiful view of the water and the mountains on the other side of Kachemak Bay. It’s not unusual to see porpoises and otters swimming in the bay, just offshore from the balcony of the Chart Room restaurant.

Jon Faulkner runs the resort — but he’s spending most of his days calling customers to process their refunds. “The hunker-down directive in Anchorage was the first hit,” said Faulkner, “but we had business on the books. It was the travel ban between communities that shut us down.”

Between 60% and 65% of Land’s End’s guests are Alaskans. During the summer, many of the out-of-state visitors come up on a cruise.

“People’s psyches have been forever altered,” he said. “They’ve been scared. Regardless of mandates, people’s travel habits have been impacted by this event. This isn’t just a little blip. I’m looking for solutions to grow out of this — trying to figure out how to get our folks back to work.”

Mike Flores owns Ninilchik Charters, with 12 boats that can accommodate from four anglers to 24. During the summer he runs fishing charters in Seward, in Homer, Ninilchik and on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.

“We’re not directly affected by the cruise shutdown,” he said, “although some customers do cruise for Alaska and then go fishing with us.“

About 40% of Ninilchik Charters’ business is local. Still, the season will be very different. “We’ve taken all of our bookings for May and June and moved them to 2021,” said Flores. In the meantime, the company is doing upgrades on the fishing boats and building more accommodations at their all-inclusive Soaring Eagle Lodge.

Suzanne Rust of K2 Aviation is doing everything she can to work through the cruise ship cancellations in Talkeetna. “Cruise ship passengers are a large part of the guests who come to Talkeetna,” she said.

“There are two ways to get to Alaska: by plane or by ship. Right now those are not good options because of health concerns,” Rust said. “And that changes the landscape.”

K2 Aviation anticipates a late start this season and scaled-back operations. “We want to operate safely and we want to keep our valuable team together,” said Rust.

Colleen Stephens grew up in the tourism business at Stan Stephens Glacier and Wildlife Cruises, working with her parents Stan and Mary Helen Stephens in Valdez. Every day during the tourist season, Stephens Cruises runs trips to Mears Glacier and Columbia Glacier. Until this year.

“We’ve delayed our start date until July 1,” Stephens said. “We have fixed costs — and I love in-state travelers, but it’s just not enough.”

Stephens and her team made the decision to delay the start before the full-season cruise cancellations were announced. “We may move from a two-boat show to a one-boat show,” she said. “It’s not all unicorns and rainbows. But there are beautiful snow-capped mountains right outside my window.”

Colleen’s stark assessment holds a message for all of us who love Alaska. It’s going to be a lean year for businesses that depend on travelers from Outside. It’s tough for them to get here now — and once restrictions are gently lifted, the challenge is to offer them safe passage in the wake of the pandemic.

That leaves a lot of wide-open spaces for us to explore this summer. We may have to search a little harder for folks who will show us around, though.

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