On a warm spring day, a breeze blew through the open windows of one of Anchorage’s iconic red trolleys as it carried a couple dozen visitors through town on a tour.
Donna McCarrey, guide for Anchorage Trolley Tours, started the ride by thanking the car full of people for choosing to visit after a difficult 2020. Then she pointed out the Alaska Range.
Alaska’s summer tourism season is taking shape. Big cruise lines just got the green light to start sailing into state waters again. At the same time, independent travelers are already showing up in force in Southcentral. Some local tour operators say they’re the visitors to focus on this year.
Cyrus Aldeman is President of Anchorage Trolley Tours. It’s a family business his dad started in 1995. On a typical summer day, Aldeman can be found on the Fourth Ave. sidewalk where the trollies load, greeting customers and anyone else passing by. He said right now, downtown Anchorage is full of excitement.
“Everyone is so excited to see the tourists again. Because they bring hope. They bring their energy with them, they bring their excitement,” he said. “Everyone is super excited for the guests to come back.”
Like many tourism companies across the state, 2020 left Anchorage Trolley Tours with reduced operations and a sticky financial situation. Aldeman said they weathered it well, thanks to a history of careful financial planning and funding from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.
The trolleys paused operations on August 1 last year because of pandemic concerns. But when operations restarted on Aldeman’s birthday in early May, he was able to bring back all of his employees, even after nine months.
Now, Aldeman said they’ll focus on serving independent travelers this year — anyone not coming on a cruise ship or as part of an organized tour.
Though cruises are making plans to return to Alaska later this summer, Southcentral ports aren’t on the schedule right now. That means fewer people, but Aldeman says that’s okay.
“We are going to haul less passengers, but we’re going to create just as many memories.”
According to Ted Stevens International Airport manager Jim Szczesniak, 261,919 passengers landed at the airport in April. That’s up a staggering 485% from the same time last year, when the pandemic was beginning to disrupt life in Alaska, but it’s far below pre-pandemic norms. Still, the travel industry and its onlookers are planning for a busy summer.
Mouhcine Guettabi is an economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research.
“This season is unlike any other in that we’re having this surge in independent travelers,” Guettabi said. “Hopefully that’s the beginning of something that lasts.”
While the cruise industry’s return to Alaska is “unambiguously good news,” Guettabi said it’s unclear how much help it’ll provide Anchorage’s economy this summer. While independent travelers provide an economic boost, they’re no match for a full cruise schedule, he said.
“I do not think that given the delay in the decision and the concerns that we’ve been dealing with, that this season is going to be close to pre-pandemic levels,” Guettabi said. “I don’t think we’re going to be anywhere close to that.”
It appears most big ships are planning voyages to the Inside Passage in Southeast this summer — not Southcentral.
Russ Reno, owner of Anchorage Downtown Tour Group, said that’s okay with him.
“I know that people like in Juneau and Ketchikan and Skagway and Seward and also Whittier are dying to get those ships back,” Reno said. “But personally, I could care less if they come back, because we cater to an independent traveler and that’s where we really truly get our big business from.”
Reno is anticipating a really good season. He said customer numbers are already up.
“Our winter from January on just ballooned,” he said. “I’ve never seen such record numbers in January, February and March as I’ve seen this year.”
Reno said the number of people who’ve already booked trips for the summer is at an all-time high, a milestone he attributed to independent travelers.
“I’m short-staffed,” said Reno. “I’m going crazy trying to accommodate the amount of bookings we’re receiving daily right now.”
Back on the trolley, Layth Alman is happily riding on the afternoon tour. He’s one of those independent travelers companies are talking so much about, visiting from Florida and excited to be in Alaska, even for just a few days.
“All of the people here are lovely, friendly, calm people,” said Alman. “And also, Alaska — it surprised me — has a lot of activities.”
He even got to see a moose at the close of the ride. Hopefully, it’s a good omen: Alman’s tour may be ending, but Southcentral’s tourism industry is just setting off down the path to recovery.