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Business/Economy

Big cruise ships aren’t coming to Southcentral Alaska this year. But local tourism operators say independent travelers are helping offset the loss.

Tourists enter Grizzly's Unique Alaskan Gifts on Fourth Avenue while shopping on Tuesday, May 25, 2021. (Bill Roth / ADN)

President Joe Biden this week signed a bill allowing cruise ship travel to Alaska. Alaska leaders called the bill’s passage a huge victory for the state’s tourism industry after it was crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the ships won’t come to Southcentral Alaska. Instead, they’ll stick to Juneau and other Southeast communities.

Tourism-dependent companies along the state’s road system say they’ll notice the drop in business without those travelers.

But many of those same companies still sound confident — they’re seeing a dramatic surge in bookings by independent travelers arriving by air, unaffiliated with a cruise line and its package tours.

Bob Neumann, owner of Grizzly’s Gifts in downtown Anchorage, said sales will plunge on the days that cruise-ship visitors would have been in town.

But he said independent travelers are booking “in droves” at another business he owns, Phillips Cruises and Tours, offering marine excursions in Seward and Whittier.

Phillips Cruises’ bookings in May rose 50% compared to 2019, which was a record year for the company, he said.

Tourists from Kansas who were planning an excursion look at the Phillips Cruises & Tours office on Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Tuesday, May 25, 2021. (Bill Roth / ADN)

“May has blown us out of the water, and June looks like it will be another big month,” Neumann said. “People have just had it with COVID.”

The bookings are a strong sign that independent travelers will boost business at Grizzly’s and other businesses in Southcentral this summer, he said. That will help make up for the lack of cruise-ship tourists.

Neumann said travel to many countries is too restricted or not safe enough, boosting interest in Alaska.

“Alaska is on the map,” he said.

With no cruises, Westmark downtown to remain boarded up

Canada and the United States stopped large-cruise travel last year during the COVID-19 pandemic. Canada’s ban on the large ships remains in place until early next year.

Congress recently passed a bill that exempts Alaska-bound cruise ships from the Passenger Vessel Services Act, which requires those ships to either stop in Canada or start their voyages in Canada.

The vessels to Southeast Alaska originate in Seattle, allowing those planned sailings to move ahead, said Erik Elvejord, a Holland America spokesman. The voyages are scheduled for late July. Small cruise ships have not been affected by the ban.

The Westmark Anchorage Hotel in downtown remained closed during the pandemic on Monday, May 24, 2021. (Bill Roth / ADN)

But the ships that would normally head to Southcentral Alaska embark in Vancouver, Canada. Those journeys can’t happen until next summer, after Canada’s ban ends.

In summer 2019, before the pandemic and Canada’s cruise ship ban, Holland America and other cruise lines made more than 125 voyages to Southcentral Alaska. They brought more than 400,000 passengers, mostly to Seward and Whittier.

From there, the travelers helped fill hotels and shops from Anchorage to Fairbanks, with many bound for Denali National Park and Preserve. In Anchorage, before the pandemic, they represented about 45% of overnight summer visitors.

Without the cruise ships in Southcentral this year, the boarded-up 14-story Westmark Hotel in downtown Anchorage will remain closed, said Elvejord.

The hotel, a subsidiary of Holland America, closed last spring during the pandemic.

It’s scheduled to reopen next spring, he said.

‘Year of the independent traveler’

Bill Popp, president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp., said no cruise ships in Southcentral waters this summer will hurt hotels and tourism-related businesses.

But Popp said he’s hearing good things from many operators, including that bed-and-breakfasts are reporting strong bookings from independent summer travelers.

Downtown Anchorage, Alaska, photographed on Saturday, May 22, 2021. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Independent travelers typically stay longer in Alaska and spend more at more businesses, officials say. They’re not tied to a tour package with limited itineraries.

Alex Logan, manager with Denali Park Adventures, said on Monday that young, independent travelers are snatching up the company’s ATV and zipline tours outside the park.

That’s making up for reduced bookings of the highway Jeep tours often preferred by older cruise ship travelers.

“Those tours are booking up like crazy,” he said. “They look like they will be in fantastic shape this summer.”

Also, Holland America, along with its Carnival-owned affiliates, is part of an effort to bring tourists to Southcentral Alaska for land-based packages, minus the cruise ships.

The land-package visitors, who will travel Alaska by train and motor coach, might number around 3,000 this summer, Elvejord said. Those visitors are not counted as independent travelers.

“The numbers aren’t the same (as cruise ship visitors),” he said. “But doing something to bring the numbers up was important to us.”

Businesses are hurting in Alaska, he said.

Tim Sullivan Jr., spokesman with the Alaska Railroad, said the railroad will provide daily service between Anchorage and Fairbanks this summer. There will be more trips than last year, but less than in 2019.

“We feel like this will be the year of the independent traveler,” he said. “We are seeing an uptick in reservations for folks coming up by plane. We think we’ll have quite a few people on the trains, but nothing like in 2019.”

Independent travel won’t be enough to overcome all the lost business, officials say.

“While we believe we are on a path to recovery, it may a couple of years to make our way back to 2019 numbers,” Julie Saupe, president of Visit Anchorage.

Managing expectations

How many independent travelers will arrive in Alaska is uncertain, Saupe said.

Before the pandemic, cruise ship tourists on land-based trips typically accounted for about 40% of the tourism business in Fairbanks each summer, said Deb Hickok, chief executive of Explore Fairbanks.

“We had some of our most robust summers and winters for five years prior to the pandemic,” she said. “To think we’ll get that back while we’re still in a pandemic, not going to happen.”

Jeremy Richards, with Alaska Salmon Bake restaurant in Fairbanks, said the number of independent travelers coming to Alaska could be hampered by the shortage of rental cars.

The market is so tight that Explore Fairbanks is telling potential visitors how they can explore the city without a rental car. Another challenge is the Canadian border travel restrictions that will hurt overland travel to Alaska, Richards said.

Richards said he’s not expecting a huge rebound in business this summer.

“There’s a lot to be excited about with things opening back up,” he said. “But if we were down about 80% last year, then maybe we’re down about 70% this year (from 2019).”

Still, many businesses are optimistic.

Normally a bustling tourist town, Talkeetna was a quiet place for much of the 2020 summer. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

Jaclyn Glenn, who manages Talkeetna Gifts and Collectables and Once in Blue Moon in Talkeetna, said the gift shops are “super busy.” Independent travelers are increasingly showing up.

“It’s a little bit quieter than 2019, but it’s still busy,” she said, putting down the phone to help a customer.

A tour bus on Sunday delivered about 30 people who walked down streets visiting shops.

Everyone seems happy after being “locked up” during the pandemic, she said.

“That’s the first time I’ve seen a tour bus in two years,” she said. “I got excited and did a happy dance.”

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