Alaska’s tourism industry prepares for cruise season amid federal travel warnings

Passengers walk a downtown Juneau dock where three cruise ships are tied up, June 11, 2017. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska)

The U.S. State Department and federal health experts are now advising people against cruise ship travel.

That’s led to questions over whether precautions over coronavirus could reverse the visitor industry’s meteoric growth in Southeast Alaska.

The cruise industry projects 1.44 million cruise passengers will visit Alaska this season. But whether that’ll materialize is an open question.

During a Sunday appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press”, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases was blunt.

“If you’re a person with an underlying condition, and you are particularly an elderly person with an underlying condition, you need to think twice about getting on a plane or on a long trip,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal institution’s director. “And not only think twice — just don’t get on a cruise ship.”

The State Department had a similar message. It posted a Sunday travel warning that said “U.S. citizens, particularly travelers with underlying health conditions, should not travel by cruise ship.” It added that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes increased risk in a “cruise ship environment.”

A day before, Vice President Mike Pence met cruise industry executives in Florida. He told reporters Saturday that an industry-led response to improve passenger screening was planned to ensure people could cruise safely.

“We want to ensure that the American people can continue — as we deal with the coronavirus — to enjoy the opportunities in the cruise line industry and be confident that the industry and our government at every level are working in concert to ensure their health and well-being,” Pence said.

Alaska cruise industry representative Mike Tibbles released a statement on Monday that said cruise lines were developing better screening and other precautions.

“We are surprised at the (State Department’s) advisory,” Tibbles of Cruise Lines International Association Alaska wrote, “but are moving forward and remain focused on development of an aggressive, responsive plan as agreed to during the meeting with Vice President Pence that goes beyond the already significantly enhanced protocols that are in place. We look forward to submitting our plan to the Vice President imminently.”

So what will that mean for Alaska’s visitor sector?

In the capital city, Travel Juneau’s Liz Perry isn’t making any predictions.

“We’re seeing a few individual cancellations among our travel Juneau partners, but nothing major,” Perry said Monday. “One of our partners has indicated that it’s a little early in the season actually to get a really good gauge on the effect of this message from the State Department.”

But looking at the demographics of those most at risk of becoming seriously ill, there are reasons to worry: According to a 2018 profile of cruise visitors by the industry, a fifth of Alaska’s cruise visitors are retirees.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy told reporters Monday that’s who public health officials are working to protect.

“Young people, children don’t seem to be impacted as older folks with underlying issues,” the governor said. “That’s the group that we’re focusing on.”

He said the first cruise passengers won’t arrive until next month, giving the state time to plan.

“We’re working with the cruise ship industry right now as we speak,” Dunleavy said, “to make sure that when that season starts that we are prepared to guarantee that our folks are safe here in Alaska.”

Screening passengers and crew for coronavirus will be challenging. Current studies suggest people can go two weeks – and in some cases longer – before they show symptoms, yet they could still spread the virus.

Some business owners in port communities are rattled.

Skagway has a year-round population of about 1,000 people. But it was projected to receive more than a million cruise passengers this year.

“There’s definitely kind of a pall over the town. We’re definitely discussing it,” said Karla Ray, who owns five businesses in Skagway that cater to visitors. “There’s already a feeling that the passenger count will be down.”

She said she felt a blanket warning against cruise travel was too broad. It should’ve been targeted to high-risk groups.

“But I think people are making their plans now to cruise,” she added. “And I do feel like, that older people are going to look at this and say, ‘I can just cruise next summer, let’s not go this summer.’”

Ray has dug back to her records from after 2008. That’s when cruise visitors plummeted in the wake of the global financial crisis. Reviewing those figures, she’s put in a hiring freeze and scaled back plans for what had been the promise of another record-breaking cruise season for Alaska.