Cruise ships are coming back to Southeast Alaska, if President Biden signs the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act. It temporarily removes a rule that a foreign port call is required by non-US-flagged cruise ships sailing between Washington and Alaska.
Now, small business owners in Juneau and across the Panhandle are faced with a critical decision, and for many, it’s life-changing: Can they risk opening for business this summer? Or will opening this year spell doom for their visitor-dependent enterprises?
Businesses generally need some degree of certainty, and business owners are feeling overwhelming uncertainty this year.
For some who spoke with Must Read Alaska, they don’t think they can risk it. They can’t get inventory in time. They can’t find anyone to work in their shops. Other family-owned businesses, such as Annie Kaill’s and Caribou Crossings in downtown Juneau are open and seeing some independent travelers already. Many restaurants and bars remained open as well.
While The Hangar and Roma restaurants at Merchants Wharf never closed during the pandemic year, the Twisted Fish and Pier 49 restaurants will remain closed this year because it costs too much to ramp back up, and there are so few people willing to work in the hospitality industry. On the other hand, Tracy’s Crab Shack will be open.
“The real story for entrepreneurs is the work force. We didn’t build it overnight and we’re not going to rebuild it overnight. We’re having a terrible time getting people to come back to work in the hospitality industry. It’s not just the unemployment bonus payments they have been getting. People have now had a long bridge of time to leave our industry and commit to different industry,” said one Juneau restaurant owner.
Nearly all of the tourism-facing businesses in Southeast Alaska have been without revenue since the season closed in 2019.
That’s over 600 days since they’ve had a customer, and by next year, it will have 30 months without revenue if they don’t open for the upcoming short and thin tour season.
For these businesses, their Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) monies have not covered their fixed costs over the past 18 months. Opening for a 10-week cruise season with only one ship a day that may have 60-70 percent capacity is not going to put them in the black, one Juneau retailer said.
Land and sea tour businesses in Southeast Alaska based their business model on 2019’s strong tourism numbers. Many had made plans to expand their operations in 2020, and were heavily leveraged for boats, buses, and equipment.
Unlike gift shops, those operators also have to have bus drivers transport ship passengers to a tour site, whether it’s a dock for a whale-watching boat, a trailhead, or the Gold Creek Salmon Bake. Finding bus drivers and getting the buses out of mothball status, inspected, permitted, and operational is difficult, because the rhythm of the seasons has been so disrupted by the 2020 ship shutdown.
Some tour operators are electing to put one or two boats in the water, and may operate just two to three days a week. But they are scrambling to find Coast Guard-certified captains for even that reduced schedule.
This week, some of the smaller boutique cruise ships arrive in Southeast — UnCruise and Alaskan Dream Cruises. For the owner of Juneau Food Tours, it’s great news. Midgi Moore said her walking tours are filling up.
Like other business owners who depend on visitors, she had big decisions to make last year for keeping open. Moore pivoted her focus and started the Taste Alaska! side business. Moore’s motto is, “If you can’t come to Alaska, we’ll come to you,” and she now ships custom Alaska food boxes all around the country. Her side venture was made possible because of a $7,000 prize she won from the Alaska Tourism Industry Association’s Shark Tank competition last year.
“I couldn’t operate food tours and I didn’t want to go bankrupt,” she said. Now, she has a year-round stream of revenue with her subscription boxes.
But Moore, who is also the head of the Downtown Business Association, agrees that finding people to work is the biggest lift for all small businesses in Juneau.
Yet, even with just a few ships, “It’s a beacon of hope and beacon of normalcy. It’s so important to our community, and out business owners who have been so stressed,” Moore said. “Business owners want to get out of their sweats, off the couch, and get back to work.”
(Photo courtesy of Juneau Food Tours)