Serena Wild co-owns the tour boat company Takeena Adventures with her boyfriend Chris Lillehoff. Lillehoff was supposed to quit working construction and devote himself full-time to the business this, but then the pandemic hit. “After last season, it might be a few more years,” Wild said. (Photo by Erin McKinstry/KCAW)

Editor’s note: Since this story aired, the Canadian government announced a ban on cruise ships in Canadian waters until February 2022, effectively canceling Alaska’s 2021 season for large cruise ships.

In pre-pandemic times, preparations for the summer season would already be underway for Alaska tourism businesses. But uncertainty about the 2021 season has left many in a holding pattern, especially those that rely on the cruise ship industry. Some Sitka businesses are feeling cautiously optimistic while others are worried about the future.

Preparations for the 2021 season are already underway on the 68-foot Takeena, says co-owner of Takeena Adventures Serena Wild. Extension cords and tools litter the main room.

“Sorry, it’s under construction right now,” Wild laughs. “It’s winter time project time!”

The company takes small groups on five-day excursions out of Sitka to go fishing, hunting, kayaking or whatever else the group wants to do. Wild and her partner purchased the boat in February of 2020, just in time for the start of the pandemic.

“Our business plan did not have a pandemic in it and luckily our lenders are understanding,” she says.

Their numbers were a fraction of what they expected, and they weren’t able to access any federal CARES Act funding because they didn’t have any previous revenue. But Takeena Adventures did have a season. Their crew is small, and the groups of no more than six guests tested before heading out on the boat.

“It’s like your own personal cruise ship. Just you and your family on board, or friends,” she says.

The company doesn’t rely on passengers from large cruise lines at all, and that could be why reservations are looking brighter for 2021. Wild says they only have a few weeks left open. That sentiment was echoed by a handful of local private lodges.

Smaller cruise lines like Alaskan Dream Cruises that aren’t subject to a federal no sail order or affected by the closure of Canadian ports are also looking at 2021 with a hint of optimism. 

“We definitely see and recognize that there is pent up demand for travel,” Zak Kirkpatrick, head of marketing, said.

Alaskan Dream Cruises cancelled their 2020 season for health and safety reasons, but have plans  to operate in 2021. Kirkpatrick says they’re heartened by the vaccine rollout, but recognize the need to be flexible. 

“We have a plan of being nimble and just rolling with the punches, like all of society is having to do,” he said.

The bigger concern is for it’s parent company, Allen Marine, which has built a regional day boat business that depends almost entirely on large cruise lines. Normally, they’d be in the midst of hiring upwards of 600 seasonal employees around the region right now, but they’ve had to tell people to hang tight.

“We just try as hard as we can to keep close communication,” Kirkpatrick said. “Of course, there’s a lot of crew members that are really eager and hopeful.”

Although it’s economy is more diverse than many Alaskan communities, with strong fishing and government sectors, Sitka’s visitor industry isn’t insignificant. Tourists pumped more than 50 million dollars into local businesses in 2016, and the bulk of those arrivals came on cruise ships: more than 80 percent. 

“You cannot overstate the cruise industry is to Southeast Alaska,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s not just us as a tour operator or the people that work for us, it’s our local restaurants, our local retailers. Everyone wants it to be healthy and safe, but are also very eager to get this sector of the economy rolling again because there’s just hardly anyone that it doesn’t affect.”

On Thursday, the Canadian government announced a ban on cruise ships in Canadian waters until February 2022, effectively shutting down Alaska’s 2021 season. Large cruise lines had been holding out hope, and the order could be rescinded if pandemic conditions improve. But cruise lines would still need to meet requirements set by the US Centers for Disease Control and Canada would need to open its ports.

Chris McGraw is general manager of Halibut Point Marine Services, which operates Sitka’s private cruise ship dock. He says he was feeling hopeful early last fall, thinking the vaccine would be widely available in time for the 2021 season, but now, he’s not so sure.

“At this point, kind of just waiting and doing our best to prepare for the season while spending as little money as possible not knowing if and when ships will show up,” McGraw said.

That’s particularly challenging because they’re currently undergoing a large expansion at their facility that needs to be completed in time for the cruise season.

And they’re not the only ones approaching the season with caution. For kayak tour company Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures, more than half of the guests come from cruise ships. Manager John Dunlap said they’ve hired a few guides to start in early May, with plans to bring on more if the cruise ships do come. 

He thinks they’ll make it through regardless, but he worries about businesses that have less diverse streams of income.

“I think there’s a lot of folks that have tourism businesses in Alaska that if this is a weak year for them, it’s gonna be really hard for them to make it through to another year,” Dunlap said.

And even for businesses like Takeena Adventures that are feeling more optimistic, the pandemic still brings a lot of uncertainty about the future.

“We have been stressed. Starting a brand new business, everything’s uncertain. There’s a lot of money going out to get it going and you’re just hoping that money is going to keep coming in,” Wild said. “The biggest challenge is trying to get our name out there and let people know that we’re available, that you can come to Alaska safely, and go out and not be around the general population.”

For those businesses that do hang on, 2022 could be a comeback year. Sitka’s Chamber of Commerce is projecting 400,000 cruise ship visitors, almost double the number from 2019.

Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.