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Tourism sector cautiously approaches summer season

Posted: Sunday, May 02, 2010

The tourism industry is approaching the summer season with a hefty measure of caution, hiring fewer staff and preparing for slow days because of an anticipated 15-percent drop in cruise passenger visitation.

Fewer visitors were expected but whether tourists will be more willing to spend this year remains an unknown that's causing added worry among tour operators and others dependent on the industry.

"We're expecting the worst and hoping for the best," Temsco Helicopters Vice President of Marketing and Tours Tim McDonnell said. "It's just too early to tell."

The season officially starts Tuesday with the first ship scheduled to dock at 8 a.m.

Temsco hired 15 percent fewer staff this season compared to last and will fly their helicopters 12 percent less. The company offers glacier and dog sled tours - activities priced on the high end of tour options in Juneau. Sales were off 26 percent last year as tourists arrived in Juneau on cheap cruise fares but spent less money during the recession.

Land tours among cruise passengers statewide were down 13 percent last year, according to one study.

McDonnell and other tour operators put a measure of hope this year in the uncontrollable - the weather. "We're like farmers, we plant our seeds and hope for the best," he said.

But some planning went into the season, since cruise lines announced ship redeployments ahead of time that would bring at least 142,000 fewer passengers to Juneau.

Cycle Alaska hired four fewer people for their staff of about 30.

Gastineau Guiding hired six fewer for their staff of 60.

Businesses said employees also would get fewer hours.

Changes in cruise ship itineraries created a summer schedule that's light on ships some days and has fewer five-ship days than in past years. The port will be empty of cruise ships on Monday mornings and every other Friday morning this season.

The effect will be a season that feels somewhat laid back, Gastineau Guiding Director of Tours and Marketing Jeremy Gieser said.

"We're usually going seven days a week and this year will be a little different," he said.

Despite a 9-percent increase in ticket sales last year, the Mount Roberts Tramway also is gearing up with caution, General Manager George Reifenstein said.

The tram's low price - $27 for an adult pass - made it a popular option among cash-strapped tourists last year. Still, Reifenstein expects a drop in sales this season. The nature of the business does not allow him to cut back more than a few positions, despite his hand-wringing over tourist numbers.

"We have to get the cars up and down whether we have two passengers or 200," he said.

Some vendors reported bookings up to 20 percent below last year at this time, but others said pre-bookings are looking strong.

ORCA Enterprises hired a full staff this year, coming off a best-ever season in 2009.

"We've lost a couple of ships but I think the people coming will come (on tours)," Senior Capt. Larry Dupler said. "The economy down south will have the largest impact."

This will be the first of an expected two-year decline in passenger visits.

Three cruise lines will bring new ships to Alaska in 2011, adding about 49,800 passengers but two additional ships - the Ryndam and Royal Princess with about 29,500 passengers - will not come next year.

The net gain of about 20,200 passengers in 2011 means visitor numbers will be down compared to 2009 by 122,000.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.



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