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. (KCAW/Tash Kimmell)

The first large cruise ship of the season arrived in Sitka on Wednesday (7-21-21), the first port call in the community by a big ship since September of 2019.

The arrival of the Serenade of the Seas 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.

It’s mid-afternoon, at the Back Door Cafe just down the street from the Cable House. This is the urban center, the heartbeat of Sitka, and you can barely feel a pulse. The chairs are on the tables and two or three folks are getting coffee to go. 

There’s a couple of shoppers in the bookstore, one in the Artists Cooperative. The day is breezy and gray — not bad for Southeast Alaska actually. Maybe the action is a couple of blocks away at centennial hall, where cruise passengers catch their shuttles to the dock.

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. (KCAW/Tash Kimmell)

KCAW – I’m walking around Sitka at about 2 p.m. on the 21st of July, the first day of the cruise season in Sitka. Royal Carribean’s Serenade of the Seas is in and Sitka is very quiet. Two hours until folks have to reboard the bus here at Harrigan Centennial Hall, and just a few scattered people here and there, walking around town. All in all much more quiet than I expected. Here are some folks who have some fish & chips. Let’s see what they have to say.

McDaniels – Pam and Patrick McDaniels from Layton, Utah.

KCAW – How’s your cruise going?

McDaniels – It’s awesome. A lot of precautions, which is good.

KCAW – Everybody’s vaccinated on the boat?

McDaniels – Except for children who are not old enough to be vaccinated. But everyone else is required, and they make us wear a white wristband to verify that we’ve been vaccinated.

The McDaniels are enjoying the low density on the Serenade of the Seas. The ship has a capacity of 2,476 passengers, but this inaugural cruise has one-quarter of that load, with just 632 guests and 804 crew. (This is by design — Royal Carribean’s start up plan — according to Fred Reeder, the Sitka port director for the Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska.)

So the McDaniels 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,” said Pam McDaniels. “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 says she hasn’t seen much traffic today, but that’s not really her market anymore.

“We were not dependent on cruise passengers,” said Robards. “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.”

And just because she’s not tethered to the cruise trade doesn’t mean that Robards doesn’t care. She’s an advocate — at the highest levels — for a 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 it’s first two-ship day of short — and quiet — 2021 season.