An uncertain summer: Skagway businesses scramble to prepare for short cruise season

Park ranger Charlotte Henson leads a group of visitors on a walking tour of Skagway in summer of 2016. (Emily Files/KHNS)

In May, big cruise ship companies got the green light to resume sailings to Alaska, after losing last summer’s tourism season to the pandemic.

That’s good news for communities like Skagway, where cruise-based tourism is critical for the local economy. The town saw a 95% drop in overall revenue due to COVID-19. But, at the same time, businesses are facing tough decisions: Many are unsure how to operate for what looks like the short cruise season of 2021.

RELATED: US House passes bill allowing big cruise ships to visit Alaska later this summer

One of those businesses is the Red Onion Saloon — an iconic Gold Rush-era businesses.

The historic brothel and saloon has been open since late April serving pizza, drinks and occasional live music to Skagway locals. In a typical year, they’d be packed at lunchtime with hungry tourists. But right now, the barstools sit largely unoccupied during the day.

With the news of cruise ships on the horizon, Operations Manager Liz Lavoie said the Red Onion is looking to ramp up staff for kitchen, bar and tour operations.

“In the last two years, everybody has been making plans by the week, and by week’s end, throwing those plans away, and starting the next week making more,” said Lavoie. “We’re really excited, and we will be staffing up.”

Dustin Craney, owner of Sockeye Cycle, said his business is fairly lucky compared to others. The company is a full-service bike shop that also offers bicycle tours. They’ve already opened up shop in Haines and in Skagway, which means most of their fixed costs are already addressed, he said. Craney said he won’t have to add many staff.

“We were really focused on our multi-day tour operations and getting independent travelers to the Upper Lynn Canal,” said Craney. “And so we’ve had a good response for that and had a lot of bookings and so we’re feeling fortunate that we were already operating and had all the insurance set up and all the permits are in place.”

RELATED: Alaska lures tourists with its stunning landscapes — and free vaccines

Other companies, however, will have to wait for next year.

Chilkoot Charters typically does bus day trips bound for the Yukon Territory of Canada. But with the border still closed due to the Canadian pandemic response, owner Stacy Gould said they won’t be able to operate even for a shortened season.

“As far as our company is concerned, all of our tours, except for one, cross that international border,” Gould said. “So we’re still deadlocked.”

Chris and Kathy Wassman, owners of Taiya River Arts, sold their home at the beginning of the pandemic and moved to Oregon. They kept their shop on Skagway’s main drag, which is already open for the season without them, but it’s at limited capacity.

Kathy Wassman said they won’t make the final decision about whether to come work at the shop and expand hours until a concrete calendar of cruise ship arrivals is published.

“We really do need that last little confirmation that this is happening, (whether) it’s going to be worth finding housing and, you know, it’s just a lot,” said Wassman.

As with most retail shops in town, sourcing products is also going to be difficult.

Usually ordering is done months in advance, but that’s not an option this year. Many retail stores have some products leftover from 2019, and with most orders halted in 2020, the shops will have to rely on existing inventory.

Judd Davis owns and operates Starfire restaurant in Skagway, serving mostly Thai food. Davis said the menu isn’t geared toward the typical tourist visiting Alaska, so they just aren’t sure how to proceed.

“I have no idea when ships are coming,” said Davis. “I don’t know if tour companies are going to open. I don’t know if, for Starfire specifically, I don’t know if crew members are going to be let off the ships, which is my bread and butter for lunches.”

Davis said the restaurants in town will try to work together to develop a plan to feed the people who do come. Some establishments may be open in the evening for locals and whatever seasonal employees are in town, while others may try to tackle any sort of busy lunch rush.

Some cruise lines have started accepting bookings for as early as late July, but port agreements have yet to be finalized with the city of Skagway — leaving business owners in limbo as they attempt to plan for an uncertain summer season.