Alaska breaks record for cruise ship passengers as tourism recovers from COVID-19 pandemic

Cruise passengers walk along the shore in Juneau on May 9. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

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

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

Newly released data marks a recovery — and then some — from the COVID-19 pandemic emergency.

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

“That’s a 23 percent increase from our best season ever,” said Meilani Shivens, director of Rain Coast Data, the economics firm that published the numbers.

“It ended up being a really, really strong season here in Southeast Alaska,” Shivens said.

The figures, based on passenger tax data calculated by the city of Juneau, were released as part of an annual report commissioned by the Southeast Conference, the regional economic development organization for Southeast Alaska.

They only include a “declared number of passengers,” Juneau Port Director Carl Uchitil said, so they don’t include the thousands of crew members aboard the ship. The figures also do not distinguish between passengers who disembark in the city and those who remain on board the ship.

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

“Business is reporting either a good year or a great year,” he said.

An annual panel survey of 370 business owners in Southeast Alaska found 73 percent had a positive view of the region’s economy, the highest rating since the survey began in 2010.

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

Tourism accounts for 15% of jobs in Southeast Alaska, but only 9% of wages; most tourism jobs are seasonal, occurring during the cruise ship season, which runs from April to October.

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

Although the number of tourists visiting is above 2019, the number of tourism-related jobs in Southeast Alaska remains below the previous record year, as do wages. Tourism-related employment accounted for 12 percent of all wages in Southeast Alaska in 2019 before declining during the pandemic.

Employers across the region continue to report labor shortages, with construction workers particularly hard to come by.

“We could really use a lot more foreign workers coming to the United States and coming to Alaska to support our economy,” Shivens said.

According to her firm’s survey, more than half of the region’s business leaders say the 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 the average single-family home in Juneau has risen 52 percent, 22 percentage points above inflation during that period, Schyvens said. Average wages in the city rose 38%, 8 points above inflation over the same period.

Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon said of the 2023 cruise season, “We’re pleased with the numbers for the tourism numbers, but at the same time we understand that the community has felt a bit of a strain this year.”

Concerns about traffic and overcrowding increased along with passenger volumes, and the city reached a voluntary agreement with the cruise industry to limit the number of ships per day.

From next year, no more than five large ships will be allowed on any given day. According to preliminary data shared by Schjivens, 50 ships have scheduled a total of 660 voyages to Southeast Alaska in 2024, with the first ship scheduled to be in Juneau on April 8 and the last on October 26.

It’s a continuation of this year’s record-long cruise ship season, which began in mid-April, and Schjivens expects 1.7 million tourists to the capital next year, another record.

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