Alaska breaks cruise-ship-passenger record

Juneau, the state’s leading cruise ship port, tallied 1.65 million passengers on ship manifests, a 23% bump from 2019

By Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon - November 6, 2023
Tourists from cruise ships walk on the Juneau waterfront on 9 May (📸 Yereth Rosen / Alaska Beacon)

The state of Alaska broke its 2019 record for cruise ship tourism this summer, with Alaska’s capital city recording 1.65 million passengers this year, according to figures released Thursday at a meeting of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce.

Most Alaska tourists arrive via cruise ship, and Juneau sees all but a handful of the cruise ships that visit Alaska each summer, making the city’s figures a proxy for the industry as a whole.

The newly published figures mark a rebound — and then some — from the COVID-19 pandemic emergency.

Juneau recorded 1.2 million cruise ship tourists in 2022, 124,600 in 2021, 48 in 2020, and 1.33 million in 2019. The 2019 figure was the previous record.

“This is a 23% increase from our best season ever before,” said Meilani Schijvens, director of Rain Coast Data, the economics firm that published the numbers.

“It ended up being a really, really strong season here in south-east Alaska,” Ms Schijvens said.

Meilani Schijvens, director of Rain Coast Data, speaks to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce on 2 November about the record cruise ship tourism season in Juneau (📸 James Brooks / Alaska Beacon)

The figures, based on per-passenger head tax figures calculated by the City and Borough of Juneau, were released as part of an annual report commissioned by Southeast Conference, the regional economic development organisation for south-east Alaska.

They include only “manifested passenger numbers”, said Carl Uchytil, the director of the port of Juneau, so they don’t include the thousands of crew aboard ships. The figures also don’t differentiate between passengers who disembark in the city and those who stay aboard ship.

Brian Holst, director of the Juneau Economic Development Council, said the figures are “absolutely” good news for his community “because economic sectors like tourism have come back solid” since the pandemic emergency.

“Businesses are reporting either a good year or a great year,” he said.

An annual panel survey of 370 south-eastern Alaska business owners found 73% had a positive view of the region’s economy, the highest mark since the survey began in 2010.

Almost 80% of survey participants said they have positive expectations for 2024 as well.

Tourism accounts for 15% of south-east Alaska’s jobs but only 9% of its wages; most tourism jobs are seasonal, occurring during the cruise ship season that runs from April through October.

Government work — state, federal, local and tribal — accounts for more than a third of the region’s jobs and wages and is the leading economic sector.

While the number of visiting tourists is above what it was in 2019, the number of tourism-related jobs in south-east Alaska remains below what it was in the prior record year, as do wages. Tourism-related employment accounted for 12% of all wages in south-east Alaska in 2019 before declining during the pandemic.

Employers across the region continue to report a workforce shortage, with construction workers in particular being hard to come by.

“Really, we could use a lot more foreign workers coming into the United States and coming into Alaska to bolster our economy,” Ms Schijvens said.

According to her firm’s survey, more than half of the region’s business leaders said a lack of housing has cost them employees.

Survey respondents also said the cost and availability of childcare was a major factor in their inability to hire and retain workers.

Over the past 12 years, the price of an average single-family home in Juneau has risen 52%, 22 percentage points above inflation during that period, Ms Schjivens said. Average wages in the city rose 38% — 8 points above inflation — during the same period.

Beth Weldon, Juneau’s mayor, said of the 2023 cruise ship season: “We are happy with the numbers for the tourism numbers, but at the same time, we understand that the community has felt a little tension this year.”

Concerns about traffic and overcrowding have risen along with passenger volume, and the city has reached a voluntary agreement with the cruise industry to cap the number of ships per day.

No more than five large ships will be permitted on any given day, starting next year. According to preliminary data shared by Ms Schjivens, 50 ships have planned a combined 660 voyages to south-east Alaska in 2024, with the first ship due in Juneau on 8 April, and the last on 26 October.

That’s an extension of this year’s record-long cruise ship season, which began in mid-April, and Ms Schjivens expects 1.7 million tourists in the capital city next year, another record.

Since relocating to Alaska in 1978 to write for the Anchorage Times, Yereth Rosen has reported about the state for Reuters, the Alaska Dispatch News, Arctic Today and other organizations. She covers environmental issues, energy, climate change, natural resources, economic and business news, health, science and Arctic concerns. In her free time, she likes to ski and watch her son’s hockey games.

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