Is this the year for independent travel in Southeast Alaska?



In my last column, I wrote about the prospects for any kind of a tourism recovery this year in Alaska.  

The visitor industry, especially in Southeast Alaska,  is very dependent on large cruise ships. However, between yet-to-be finalized pandemic protocols and Canada’s cruise ban, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that the season will happen.

While our Congressional delegation and governor are trying to salvage the cruise season, a separate discussion of how we might boost independent tourism is ongoing – and vital.

On the cruise front, Rep. Young has introduced legislation, the Alaska Tourism Recovery Act, a temporary workaround that would make roundtrip voyages between Alaska and Washington a “foreign voyage” under U.S. regulations. This would make moot the requirement for a Canadian port call under the Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA).

Unfortunately, the PVSA isn’t the only hurdle that cruise lines face before returning to Alaska. 

Interim CDC guidance mandates that cruise companies run several “simulated” cruises with each ship along with a complex list of protocols, procedures, and other requirements before being cleared for operation.  Can cruise companies get ships ready, crews onboard and trained, obtain unanimity of agreement on protocols among affected Alaska port communities, then run several mock cruises in time to begin an economically feasible season?

It’s highly doubtful.  Cruise lines have already begun cancelling ship sailings for the 2021 season.

Travel Juneau, the Capital City’s travel and convention bureau, is formulating a plan to increase sales and independent travel in Southeast Alaska.  A few key components being considered are:

  • bolstering sales to in-state traffic and locals
  • developing targeted campaigns in the lower 48 through video & social media 
  • marketing Juneau as a “safe” community 

While the CDC has resisted loosening restrictions for cruise travel, other forms of travel are feasible. Governor Dunleavy has pointed out that Alaska should be the safest destination of choice for travelers this year. From the first traveler-testing program in the United States, to leading our country in testing and vaccines, the pandemic response from Alaskans has been rated the best in the U.S.

This should make Alaska more attractive to visitors looking to travel after a year of lockdowns.  Furthermore, most travel companies and airlines now have flexible and more generous booking and cancellation policies, and prices are historically low.  More readily available vaccines combined with pent-up travel demand should result in increased vacation planning and bookings.

Communities and businesses in SE Alaska might consider ways to take advantage of this.

First, each community should review their pandemic protocols and testing requirements. In Juneau, for instance, strict testing and quarantine rules are still in place for unvaccinated visitors (although this is scheduled to sunset on May 1). No one is going to schedule a vacation to Alaska if required to practice strict social distance (essentially quarantine) for 5 days after getting here. Since trip planning is happening now, communities should reassess these restrictions when warranted.

Second, businesses might explore ways to provide services and products that cater to smaller groups of people.  This may involve downsizing their operation further and finding efficiencies that allow them to operate with groups of say,  5-10 customers. This will be difficult for business models that depend on large volumes of cruise passengers such as whale watching boats and bus tours.

While these actions are short-term in nature and will not offset the revenue losses caused by a shortened or cancelled cruise season, they may help some businesses survive until 2022, when we can anticipate some recovery.

In the long term, Juneau residents and our neighboring communities would be wise to encourage continued growth and diversity in our visitor industry.  An ill-conceived local ballot initiative scheduled to be filed this month to limit cruise ship tourism in Juneau  does just the opposite.

It’s ironic that many people that criticize the cruise industry also fight a project that would have an exponentially beneficial impact on independent tourism – the construction of a road linking Juneau to Haines, Skagway, and the Continental U.S.

If we genuinely want to increase the number of independent visitors to our community, recognizing the economic benefits of a  road should be part of our vision and planning.

Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is active in community affairs and in various local and statewide organizations.


  1. Maybe Canada will reopen its borders to Alaska travelers by the time the road from Juneau to Skagway or Haines is built.

  2. Great food for thought. The private sector can and should expand private tourism in the state and Outside. The road connecting Juneau and Haynes to the Lower 48 could equal out the loss of big ship tourism and create small business jobs in Alaska and Canada.

  3. Well its about time there is real talk about encouraging families travelling within especially if they were a government state and city employee last year not see any changes to their hours and pay.
    Cause you know you never needed to go cross country and over oceans for vacations when Alaskan individuals and families dont even know Alaska beyond common tourist information. Some visitors visting Alaska know more about Alaska than born and raised Alaskans! And Thats really sad!

  4. What really annoys me is our Congressional delegation should have seen this possibly (no tourism) and started trying to do something about months ago.

    As always, our people are days late and dollars short

  5. Perhaps if SE had a diversified economy, maybe making use of their resources like I don’t know maybe timber, they wouldn’t be suffering as much due to losing their low paying high volume jobs. SE is a microcosm of AK as a whole, they chose or were forced into choosing to subsist mainly on a single industry and shutdown other industries in pursuit of that singular vision.

    • When I look at this situation the only similar situation, for me, was looking at the prognosis of a fishing season immediately after EXXON-Valdez oil spill. Of course these tourist-related businesses have already got one season without tourists under their belt and, so far it seems, they aren’t ready to try any fix to these huge foreign tour ships that have been foiled by Canada’s decision to halt their moving through their waters for another year.
      Hard to wean oneself from that captive audience of retirees with too much money to spend that rushed onto shore every day in SE Alaska and created the business community that is struggling now.
      My own thinking is that business should pursue the idea of smaller, US built cruise ships that are not subject to Jones Act issues but I also don’t have a horse in this race. That said the tourism demand will likely remain, as pandemic is better controlled, and American business will provide for that demand IMO.

  6. I’m curious what kind of “diversity” he expects SE to do? About the only thing less isolated than SE are the native villages.

    SE has housing shortages, usable land shortages, minimal infrastructure suited to advanced tech, and is overrun with homeless people.

    It would help if he actually gave tangible examples of how the SE could expand its economy. The limited options are already in use.

    Truth is, SE as an economic entity is unsustainable. Remove the capital and Juneau goes from 30,000 to maybe 12,000 inside of 5 years. A more realistic view is to build a road system and cut back on state support.

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