On listening tour of Alaska, Royal Caribbean CEO hears good and bad: Travel Weekly
JUNEAU – On a sunny September day, with fluffy white clouds scraping the mountain peaks, one cruise ship after another sailed into the harbor and docked here, freeing thousands of passengers ashore to explore.
The ships included Norwegian Spirit, Holland America’s Noordam and Majestic Princess. Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas was the last to arrive.
Serenaded, wearing a Royal-branded navy puffy vest, Royal Caribbean Group CEO Jason Liberty stood on the worn Safari Lounge dance floor to hear from city officials, developers of docks, restaurant owners and other members of the travel community. who rely on cruise lines to bring people to Alaska.
After the pandemic crushed the cruise industry in 2020 and a slow recovery in service in 2021, cruising finally returned to Alaska in earnest this year. As Liberty, who has been CEO for just over nine months, ventured on an end-of-season listening tour of Anchorage, Juneau and Sitka, what he heard was a mixture of gratitude for the activities business growth and challenges related to persistent labor shortages.
Royal Caribbean Group has had its own difficulties. The company went from about $10 billion a year before the pandemic to $0 during the shutdown, Liberty told them.
“I’ve been a lot schooled in my life, probably overschooled. There were no lessons in how to deal with that,” he told the dozens of Juneau leaders before him. “A huge impact for us, but also a huge impact for all these great communities.”
Since 2020, the impact of the pandemic has lessened. Congress crafted a historic exemption to the Passenger Ship Services Act in 2021, allowing cruise ships to resume sailing to Alaska without having to stop in Canada, which had banned cruise ships until in early 2022. The exemption allowed for a partial 2021 season in Alaska, where in 2019 one in 10 jobs was related to the travel industry.
“As we all learned, getting back into business from virtually zero was no small task, and we were going to fight protocols, we were going to fight huge labor issues, and somehow you all were able to do it in a very successful way,” Liberty said. “We did it. We came out the other side.”
With Canada dropping its cruise ban, 2022 has become the first full cruise season since the pandemic began.
Royal Caribbean Group’s three brands, Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Silversea Cruises, sailed on 10 ships in Alaska this year. That’s up from 2019, when the company sent six ships to the final frontier.
“This scenery here is some of the most incredible scenery on the planet. Of course, we continue to up our game on our ships,” Liberty said. “We always want to make sure that the experience that happens on the ship also happens on land.”
This first full season has been a good but difficult year, local leaders said. Cruise lines have routinely delivered cruisers to explore the state’s mountains, glaciers, nature, culture and food, but companies have struggled to hire enough workers to handle them all.
“Cruise passengers have done an amazing job filling their beds,” said Reecia Wilson, owner of five waterfront restaurants in Juneau.
She normally employs around 225 people between these locations, but due to labor shortages she can only operate three of the restaurants. “We’re trying to pull ourselves out of the pandemic,” she said.
Preston Carnahan, who leads business and destination development on the west coast of North America for Royal Caribbean International, said labor issues have also affected access to excursions, such as excursions by coach or whale watching.
“Available tours sell out sooner,” he said, leading some cruise lines to fill the gaps by booking outside tours.
The same labor issues that have plagued the lower 48s are present in Alaska, several business leaders said. Between retirements and the trend of large resignations of workers quitting their jobs, many Alaskan businesses have struggled to employ enough staff, said Sarah Leonard, CEO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association. The association is now studying how to better promote job opportunities to attract people to work in Alaska, she said.
When asked if businesses in Hoonah, the home of Icy Strait Point, had a labor problem, Mayor Gerald Byers replied: “Who doesn’t?” These labor issues affect all areas, including restaurants and hotels, he said. It’s not just in travel; several municipal jobs posted a year ago have yet to be filled, he said.
Business is booming this year in Seward, a town of 3,000 where some 175,000 people have passed through this year on cruise ships, said City Manager Janette Bower.
And despite the absence of cruise ships in 2021, Liz DeMoss, city council member and owner of Seward Alehouse, said the city achieved record camping revenue in 2021 and a high number of travelers in the State, which signaled to DeMoss and the city that people would be ready to travel again in 2022.
“Alaska was one of the most exotic places people could go to when you couldn’t travel to other countries yet,” she said.