With 20 cruise ship visits scheduled, Unalaska had been preparing for a record number of visitors this year. But the industry has been dealt a series of blows in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
There have been port closures in Canada and Seattle, a federal "no sail order," and several outbreaks of the disease on cruise ships in the past two months.
So far, six of the sailings that would have come to Unalaska this year have been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But there are still 14 planned visits, at least for now.
Anntouza Sedjo, cruise ship coordinator for the Unalaska Visitors Bureau, said the loss of 30 percent of scheduled visits is a blow to the city. But, she said, at least the community is not in the same dire situation as other coastal communities that rely more heavily on the visitor sector.
"Unlike Southeast Alaska, our community is not dependent on [tourist] income. Having this many cruise ships is relatively new," she said.
The state's tourism economy accounts for as much as 1 in 10 jobs throughout the state and more in the regions surrounding Anchorage and Juneau. It represented more than $4 billion in total spending in 2017, and that number is only growing.
"But I don't want to downplay it at all," Sedjo said. "This is a huge blow with even six cancellations, because people plan and they budget. It's going to be a loss of a lot of money for the bus company, the Unalaska Visitors Bureau, the Museum of the Aleutians, the WWII Visitors Center, Safeway, the Norwegian Rat Saloon, the Grand Aleutian Hotel — all of these entities that make money when the cruise ships come. And even individual artists who sell artwork are going to be affected by this. But fortunately for our community, it's not going to be a devastating blow like it is to somewhere like Skagway or Ketchikan or even Juneau, where they are highly dependent on cruise ship income."
Even so, those six cruise ship cancellations to Unalaska represent a loss of about 3,000 passengers and at least $50,000 dollars in combined revenue for various services, according to Sedjo. It will impact local businesses and artists who rely on cruise ship visitors for support during the summer months.
Last year was supposed to be a record-setting cruise ship season for Unalaska, with 20 visits, but only 19 made it to the community because one ship had engine problems near Adak. Sedjo said the visitors bureau was looking forward to another record year in 2020 when they got the finalized itinerary with 20 scheduled visits from cruise lines like Compagnie du Ponant and Lindblad Expeditions, which operates National Geographic expeditions from Antarctica to Alaska.
But Unalaska doesn't tend to get many large cruise ships. In general, the community sees ships with less than 200 passengers, which means they aren't included in the "no sail order" from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that limits sailings of ships with more than 250 passengers. However, there's still a warning that even smaller ships pose a risk to both the passengers and to the ports they come into.
Cruise companies are looking at the situation posed by the global COVID-19 pandemic in several ways according to Sedjo: Are they going to be allowed into ports, are they going to be allowed to cross through the waters of a country, and are they going to have enough bookings.
"People don't know whether there will be some kind of tourism season in July for all of Alaska, or whether this whole summer is just going to be completely cancelled and they should come up with strategies to deal with that and plan for 2021," said Sedjo. "I hear a lot of both. I don't know what to think."
In the meantime, the visitors bureau is working with city officials on safety protocols for when and if cruise ship passengers do arrive. Sedjo said that could include mandating cruise ships screen passengers before they get off their boats and enter a community, among other requirements.
The island's first cruise ship is still scheduled to visit in late June, but as uncertainties over the coronavirus continue, Sedjo said she expects to see more cancellations.
Furthermore, the visitors bureau doesn't only rely on cruise ship visits. The Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) released an updated summer schedule this week "to provide an appropriate level of service based on passenger demand, crew availability, and state and federal guidelines for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic."
Gov. Mike Dunleavy has made massive funding cuts to the state ferry system during his time in office. Last year, he proposed a budget that only had enough money to run the ferry system for a few months.
"We're all in a state of uncertainty," said Sedjo. "Cruise ships, ferry, airlines — we don't know what's going to happen, even in May. And we definitely don't know what's going to happen in June or July. I don't know if they would even allow the ferry to come out. I don't know if they'd want the ferry bringing people and stopping in remote communities. So there are a lot of questions that we don't have the answers for that go beyond the lack of funding for the Tustumena, which was the issue that was originally cutting ferry service. Now we also have the complication of COVID-19."
Sedjo said many things are up in the air right now. Cruise ships, ferries, and airlines have all seen a drop in passenger service bookings amid uncertainties from the coronavirus pandemic.
Until state and federal restrictions are relaxed and demand for service increases, Sedjo said she doesn’t know how things will look moving forward.
"I think that's the hardest thing for people: living with the uncertainty. You can't predict it, you can't plan for it," said Sedjo. "I can guess that we probably will have a lot more cancellations. I hope that things get better and that it'll be safe for cruise ships and ferries to come and that we will have some coming later in the year. That's what I can hope for. But I'm a little bit more pessimistic I think."
For an updated schedule of cruise ship and ferry visits, go to the Unalaska Visitors Bureau's website at unalaska.org.