To open the gift shop or not? Southeast gears up for cruise ships, but small business risk is worrisome in short season


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)

Read: All aboard as cruises start filling up for Southeast


  1. Who cares? Most junk (gift) shops in southeast (particularly Juneau) are owned by people from Seattle.

  2. Funny thing: the “junk shops” are already closed and will stay that way. It’s the tour operators and local businesses that are in a live or die situation.

    Easy to be arrogantly cavalier when it’s not your business, home, livelihood at risk.

  3. Then don’t cry and ask for government handouts if you choose to not open. It is their choice and its fine whatever they choose but don’t say a word about poor is me. Live with your decision.

  4. It is a tough situation to be in if you can’t make up for your expenses to reopen. But saying that, I will place some of the blame on the communities for not following the real data on COVID-19 understanding that they were duped by the lefties running their government institutions and holding them accountable for the ridiculous shutdowns and lockdowns that were not needed. If you want to play ignorant and not do your research, you get what you get. It is “We the people” that have the power to hold our officials accountable for foolish policies. It is past time for us to use our voices and proclaim the truth about the “Big Lie” that was perpetrated against a free nation to destroy our way of life. The Marxist revolution we are currently fighting is going to get worse. There are now retired military generals warning Americans to wake up and get involved in the fight to restore liberty. Snap out of it or watch your children’s future go up in smoke.

  5. Massive tourism is one of the reasons I left Juneau and moved to the Matsu Valley. Clogged streets and overhead noise from the non-stop glacier-bound helicopter armada, sometimes nine deep, flying right over my house, from 8 am to 8 pm every day was simply unbearable.

    In addition, the dumping of “gray water” from the over-bloated tour ships into our pristine S. E. waters was beyond disgusting. Who says tourism is a “clean industry?”

    I like tourists. I’m happy to share my beautiful state with others. But not at the expense of the quiet enjoyment of my property. The greedy tour companies just didn’t know when to stop.

  6. All it will take is one coronavirus outbreak and failure of the vaccine to safeguard against the tougher strain of the virus, then the entire cruise season will come to a roaring halt. Infected tourists will be stuck at sea, and in Alaska, once again.

  7. Keep beating that fear drum and cowering in your basement behind your five masks,, face shield and full-body bubblewrap, David G. More rational people will get on with with lives and will accept the fact that life is not and cannot be risk-free, and that mere survival is not living.

  8. There are no tougher strains, unless the Wuhan Labs cook up a new brew. This was all planned and its why you see certain businesses shut down while others were allowed to stay open. Don’t go to church or a restaurant, do not get a haircut. Yet, you can rub shoulders with others in Costco and Home Depot. If you live in Washington or Oregon, you could peacefully protest all night and not have a concern. Strange how this all worked.

  9. How many of these businesses are Alaskan owned and how many of the employees are Alaskans? My guess is the shops and businesses that have been open are the Alaskan owned variety that employ Alaskans the closed ones are only up here for tourist season and return to their homes in the lower 48 or abroad during the rest of the year.

  10. This is much better business reporting than we see in the Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau newspapers.

  11. Small, independent businesses form the most obstinate obstacle to socialist/totalitarian governance. These businesses had to be crushed, as large corporation employees, government employees and government benefit program beneficiaries are easy to manipulate. The lock downs, mask, and social distancing mandates did nothing (as in zero) for public health protection. The mitigation actions by public health authorities to minimize the hazards of this virus were an absolute failure. If there were job performance accountability requirements for officials, all would be removed from political office or employment, and in many cases, if there were a functioning criminal justice system, jailed and fined for criminal incompetence. Public health was never the issue or goal, and therefore the pandemic response was a stellar success. Overall the US was shaken to its core, the center of gravity of the mass of working class Americans was shifted from productive employment to dependence on programs. The Independent middle class small business owners were either bankrupted or diverted to dependence on PPP loans and grants instead of open market revenue. Large corporations have gained almost complete market share, expanding their sourcing from China, insuring well paying and stable industrial jobs are outsourced overseas. If this were a revolution, it would rank as the most effective in history. It would also be a unique revolution in that the current elite ruling/upper classes instead of being overthrown as in most revolutions and replaced with a new ruling/upper class, essentially stripped the rights and economic wealth from the middle class masses and consolidated absolute power for themselves.

  12. Herman Nelson, it is inaccurate to say most of the businesses are owned by Seattle people. At least half are owned by Juneau residents and most of the rest are renting from Juneau landlords. Be assured, these are the conservative minority in Juneau. Those businesses owned/operated by outsiders pay their local taxes just like Fred Meyer, Walmart, and all the other outside-Alaska-owned businesses operating throughout the state—especially in Anchorage. Continue critical-thinking my friend.

  13. Wayne- when you walk by the junk (gift) shops in Juneau, in October; they are all closed and have signs in the window that say something along the lines of “In case of fire or break-in: call 206-555-1212 (Washington Area code)”. Pay taxes or not, it’s revenue that left the state. Kind of like out of state fishing boats, slope workers that live in the lower 48, and almost all tourship employees. It’s revenue that left the state and will not cycle through our economy. Simply modern day carpet baggers. There’s your reality check, you’re welcome.

  14. Stuff Made in China
    Wait that’s an old picture of the Passengers.
    Your new picture will be all those people wearing a Diaper on there faces.
    Be Afraid be Very Afraid stop the Madness

  15. SHUT’ER DOWN … And, move to FLORIDA, SOUTH DAKOTA, AND.OR TEXAS!!! Of course, those are all Red States, complete with true – honest Conservative Patriot Americans who love and cherish Life & Liberty & Freedom. All of those states are open. and just like AK and the rest of the nation, the survival rate from Covid-19 is, and always has been, 99%. so, quit being ‘AFFRAID’ and start living life!

  16. I’m curious how a shop not in operation makes money to leave the state. Said “junk shops” are still paying taxes and rent, regardless of being open or not.

    More the myopic thinking ignores the several businesses who are locally owned and shut down in the off season because….wait for it…. there is no business to transact.

    While it’s true many shops are owned by the cruise lines, many are not. And many of those are barely hanging on.

    At the same time it’s a convenient dodge to ignore the 1000s of locals who are employed by the tour operators, most of them Alaskan.

    There’s a reality check.

    I’m generally curious by all the vitriol aimed at fellow Alaskans.

  17. Steve-O,

    The businesses open now are the one primarily owned by Alaskans. The ones closed are either owned by the cruise lines or external operators.

    It’s about 40-60 local/out of town on average. This year the balance will tilt even more towards out of town due to the businesses forced to close.

    Most of the local tour operators prefer to higher locals since they know the region and can bring “value added” to their businesses

  18. The vitriol against fellow Alaskans is from the “essential” workers. People who create an economy are looked down on.

  19. Herman Nelson, a boarded up gift shop owned by some fellow with a heavy middle Eastern accent on lower South Franklin beats the hell out of what South Franklin was in the ’60s. It was rat infested and rotting and run down , I know it was my paper route.

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