Earlier in May, major cruise lines were given the green light to resume crossings to Alaska, after losing the tourist season last summer due to the pandemic.
This is good news for communities like Skagway, where cruise tourism is essential to the local economy. The city has seen a 95% drop in its overall revenue due to the pandemic. But, at the same time, businesses here are faced with tough decisions, many unsure of how to operate for what looks like a short cruise season in 2021.
The Red Onion Saloon is one of Skagway’s signature businesses during the Gold Rush era. The historic brothel and saloon have been open since late April and serve pizza, drinks and the occasional live music to the people of Skagway. In a typical year, they were packed at lunchtime with hungry tourists hoping to spot a rogue garter. But at the moment, bar stools are largely unoccupied during the day.
With the news of cruise ships on the horizon, COO Liz Lavoie says the Red Onion is looking to increase its staff for kitchen, bar and tour operations.
“For the past two years, everyone has been making weekly and weekend plans, rejecting those plans and starting the next week to do more. We are very enthusiastic and we are going to be staffed, ”said Lavoie.
Dustin Craney, the owner of Sockeye Cycle, says his business is quite fortunate compared to others, as they had already opened a store in Haines and Skagway, and so most of their fixed costs are already taken care of.
“We were really focused on our multi-day tour operations and the arrival of independent travelers to the Upper Lynn Canal. And so we had a good response for that and had a lot of bookings and so we feel lucky that we were already operating and all the insurances were in place and all the permits were in place, ”Craney said.
Craney also said he won’t have to add a lot of staff either. They are one of the lucky ones.
Chilkoot Charters typically run day trips by bus to Canada’s Yukon Territory, but with the border still closed due to Canada’s pandemic response, owner Stacy Gould says they will not be able to operate for the season shortened.
“As far as our business goes, all but one of our tours cross that international border, so we’re still at a dead end, ”said Gould.
Chris and Kathy Wassman, owners of Taiya River Arts, sold their home at the start of the pandemic and moved to Oregon. Their shop on Skagway’s main drag, Broadway Street, is already open for the season, even without the property being present, but is open in a limited capacity.
Kathy Wassman says they won’t make the final decision on whether to come in to work at the store and increase hours until a concrete schedule for cruise ship arrivals is released.
“We really need that last little confirmation that this is happening, (if) it will be worth finding accommodation and you know, that’s just a lot, ”Wassman said.
As with most retail stores in town, sourcing products will be difficult. Usually orders are made months in advance, but without a solid timeline that’s not an option this year. Many retail stores have products left over from 2019, and with most orders halted in 2020, many stores will need to build on existing inventory.
Judd Davis owns and operates the Starfire Restaurant in Skagway. They mainly serve Thai food. Davis says their menu is not suited to the typical tourist visiting Alaska, so they just don’t know how to do it.
“I have no idea when the ships are coming. I don’t know if any tour operators are going to open. I’m not sure if, for Starfire in particular, I’m not sure if the crew members are going to be released from the ships, which is my bread and butter for lunches, ”Davis said.
Davis said restaurants in town will try to work together to develop a plan to feed the people who come. Some establishments will be open in the evenings for locals and seasonal workers in the city, while others will try to tackle what could be a lunch rush.
Some cruise lines started accepting bookings at the end of July, but port agreements have not yet been finalized with the Municipality of Skagway for any of them; leaving business owners in the dark as they attempt to plan for an uncertain summer season.