Arrival of Alaska’s first cruise ship of 2021 coincided with a major coronavirus outbreak in Sitka

A white cruise ship on a dock
The Serenade of the Seas in Sitka on July 21, 2021, the first port call of the curtailed 2021 cruise season. The 632 passengers had room to spare on the ship, which has a capacity of almost 2,500. (Tash Kimmell/KCAW)

The first large cruise ship of the season arrived in Sitka on Wednesday. It was also Alaska’s first port call by a big cruise ship since 2019.

Serenade of the Seas’ arrival coincided with a major coronavirus outbreak in Sitka, but that didn’t seem to affect the number of passengers visiting town — all of whom were vaccinated, except for children. There simply weren’t that many of them.

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In the urban center — the heartbeat of Sitka — you could barely feel a pulse. Chairs were on tables at the Backdoor Cafe, and two or three folks were getting coffee to go.

There were a couple of shoppers in the bookstore and one in the Island Artists Cooperative. The day was breezy and gray — but not bad for Southeast Alaska.

Some of the Serenade of the Seas’ 632 passengers enjoy downtown Sitka on the first port call of the season, July 21, 2021. On a more typical cruise ship call — full capacity for one or two large ships — Sitka’s downtown sidewalks are wall-to-wall with visitors. (Tash Kimmell/KCAW)

A couple of blocks away at Centennial Hall, where cruise passengers catch their shuttles to the dock, there were just a few scattered people walking around. Pam and Patrick McDaniels from Layton, Utah were eating fish and chips.

They said they were enjoying the low density on the Serenade of the Seas. It has a capacity of 2,476 passengers, but this cruise has a quarter of that, just 632 guests and 804 crew. That’s part of Royal Caribbean’s startup plan, according to Fred Reeder, the Sitka port director for the Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska.

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The McDaniels said they’re satisfied with the safety precautions, including a requirement for everyone eligible be vaccinated. So they feel safe on the ship — but what about in Sitka? The community is experiencing the biggest coronavirus surge of the pandemic, with over 200 active cases.

“We’ve heard that. So is every place. So is Utah, where we’re at,” Pam McDaniels said. “There were 800 new cases in Salt Lake, just in the last 24 hours.”

The arrival of the Serenade of the Seas is the first of around two dozen cruise ship calls scheduled for Sitka between now and the end of September, although many late season ships cancel when the weather worsens on the outer coast.

It did not take the non-existent 2020 cruise season to refocus the strategies of Sitka’s downtown merchants.

Across from Harrigan Centennial Hall, in prime cruise passenger turf, Shirley Robards is staffing the desk at Stereo North. She said she hasn’t seen much traffic today, but that’s not really her market anymore.

“We were not dependent on cruise passengers,” Robards said. “We used to be, but that was before Amazon. When Amazon came in, it kind of took off. And Tuffy (Shirley’s son) thought about it and thought about it, and said ‘I think we’re going to do furniture.’”

But just because she’s not tethered to the cruise trade doesn’t mean Robards doesn’t care. She’s an advocate for the visitor industry rebound that benefits everyone.

“I think it’s going to work out, I really do,” she said. “I really believe in God and I think that the people of Sitka just have to hang on and do what you can do and hope for the best.”

The Serenade of the Seas is scheduled to call again in Sitka on Wednesday, July 28. Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam is scheduled at the same time, giving Sitka its first two-ship day of the short — and quiet — 2021 season.

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Robert Woolsey is a reporter at KCAW in Sitka.

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