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Businesses In Alaska Celebrate The Return Of Tourists On Cruise Ships

NOEL KING, HOST:

Cruise ships are returning to Alaska, which is helping the state's economy. But it is not a full comeback just yet.

Here's Claire Stremple of member station KTOO.

CLAIRE STREMPLE, BYLINE: The sun is still high in the sky at 5 p.m. as the Serenade of the Seas glides into port in the southeast Alaska village of Hoonah.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

GEORGE DALTON JR: I'm telling you, my heart is pounding right now watching this ship tie up.

STREMPLE: One of the local Tlingit dancers greeting the ship is George Dalton Jr. He was hired back to his usual job this year. He works for the Alaska Native-owned port company, the biggest employer in the tiny village.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in Tlingit).

STREMPLE: It's a late start to the season, but one that marks an end to a hiatus that cost Alaska an estimated $3 billion and more than 40,000 jobs. Those losses are most acute here, in southeast Alaska, where cruising is the easiest way to get large numbers of tourists to remote places.

KAREN MCMILLAN: It's been just like a regular cruise other than you just have to wear a mask.

STREMPLE: Karen McMillan is visiting from Clinton, Miss. And, she says, there are perks to cruising in a pandemic.

MCMILLAN: It's not as packed.

(LAUGHTER)

MCMILLAN: It's not as full.

STREMPLE: In fact, her ship was only one-third full. McMillan says she's glad there are no lines. Crew members outnumber the passengers. It's hard to overstate the economic impact of cruising in the region. The ship in Hoonah doubles the population for the six hours it's in port.

MEILANI SCHIJVENS: Well, it's huge.

STREMPLE: Meilani Schijvens runs a Juneau economic development firm. She says even a short, meager season is enough to keep some businesses intact. Tourism creates nearly 20% of jobs in the region, even though it only operates half the year. It's the biggest private sector industry. And, says Schijvens...

SCHIJVENS: About 90% of all of our tourists come via cruise ship.

STREMPLE: The capital city of Juneau has a more diverse economy than Hoonah's. But businesses were still hit hard last year. Tourists usually pour off the docks into the heart of downtown. This summer, it's more of a trickle.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I want three dark chocolate sea otter paws and three dark chocolate Alaskan roca.

STREMPLE: Scott Bergmann is an owner of Alaska Fudge Company (ph). Long bars of the candy sit behind him on marble slabs.

SCOTT BERGMANN: It was, like, a sigh of relief. Like, OK, we can do this.

STREMPLE: He's stirring caramel in a copper pot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPOON STIRRING)

STREMPLE: There's a steady flow of customers on this day. Cruise tourists are the bulk of his clientele.

BERGMANN: We're going to get through to 2022. Yeah. I mean, that is what a lot of the businesses down here are looking for, you know? It's enough money in the bank to get through the winter.

STREMPLE: The year before the pandemic, Alaska set record numbers for cruise ship tourism. On a busy summer day back then, Bergmann made up to 300 pounds of fudge. This year, it's more like 100 pounds.

WENDY ANDREWS: We're glad to be back.

STREMPLE: Wendy Andrews of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., cruises Alaska every year with her husband. They always stop at Bergmann's fudge shop for local flavors, like glacier chip and motherload maple.

ANDREWS: Every time we come, we buy fudge. We buy the three pack because we can't make up our mind.

STREMPLE: Cruise companies are expected to operate at a loss this year. But operating at all is a life preserver for them and the shoreside communities that make Alaska a destination. They're both celebrating the ship's return because it means there will be a next year.

For NPR News, I'm Claire Stremple in Juneau.

(SOUNDBITE OF WESS MEETS WEST'S "THE TRUTH ABOUT THE WIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.