PUBLISHED: 3:58 PM on Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Ready or not
Southeast prepares for approaching tourist season

Photo by Abby LaForce
  Kristin Cadigan, manager of Nor'Westerly, a gift shop in downtown Juneau, unpacks freight in preparation for the upcoming tourist season.
Tourist season is back, and communities in Southeast Alaska are bustling with preparation. From construction companies hurrying to complete new buildings to buses in-training rumbling back and forth through streets, tourists will soon be migrating through towns across Southeast Alaska. The first cruise ships arrive in Juneau bright and early, Sunday, May 6.

Economically Southeast Alaska thrives off the tour season, and with the cash flow comes plenty of hard work.

"There's no question that the activity level around town picks up in a big way, for residents and visitors alike," said Lorene Palmer, president of Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau. "In 2006, a little over one million visitors came to Juneau via cruise, air and ferry."

There are so many things to see and do in Juneau during the summer that everyone seems to be outside engaging their favorite pastimes whether it's fishing, camping, hiking or people-watching, Palmer said.

In Skagway, about 900,000 tourists visited, said "Buckwheat" Donahue, tourism director of Skagway Convention and Visitors Bureau. About 80 percent of tourists were from cruise ships, he said.

Donahue enjoys the tourist season because he said by September, things go from hundreds of options and things to do to about 10 things.

Another aspect he said he enjoys is "people watching" and seeing all the "good-lookin' girls." He also said his wife checks out all the guys, so it's OK.

At the Mount Roberts Tramway, one of Juneau's top attractions, employees are digging up more snow this year, said general manager George Reifenstein.

The Tramway is in the process of training employees, which total about 90 working for the season, Reifenstein said.

"Most of our employees are locals returning for the season, some are retirees, high school student and college students," he said.

They go through approximately 60 hours of training, some departments require more including tram conductors and restaurant employees, he says.

"We had a little under 200,000 customers," he said, concerning total head count for the 2006 season.

In Wrangell, John Yeger, co-owner of Alaska Charter & Adventures, who specialize in delivering wilderness adventures, by taking small groups on customized excursions to Anan Wildlife Observatory, Stikine River, LeConte Glacier, whale watching, fishing charters and camping in the Tongass National Forest, says 90 percent of their business is April through October.

The majority of their business comes from independent travelers, he said.

"We work hard all through the winter to be ready for the season," Yeger said.

Preparation includes preparing boats for safety, maintenance and correspondence with customers through e-mails and phone.

Their employees are all local people that live in Wrangell, he said.

In Ketchikan, tour manager Michelle Gale of Promech Air said, "Mid-July through August is our peak season." Promech Air is one of the largest floatplane tour companies in Southeast Alaska.

Its most popular tour is the Misty Fjords tour, where it lands in a lake or inlet, shuts the plane down and just absorbs the environment.

A new route it's offering includes flight-seeing of the glacier in Skagway.

A majority of their customers are from cruise ships, whom they have contracts with, she said.

A year-round operation, the company does hire seasonal workers ranging from high school student to retired folks, Gale said.

Its training is all hands-one where employees act out the motions and actually start tour aficionados right from the ships, she says.

Gray Line of Alaska, offering tour bus services in Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan and more, have a recruitment program for employees.

"We have about five people local and 25 to 30 college-age kids we recruited from job fairs in the lower 48," said operations manager Ryan Carroll in Juneau.

He said employees need about 120 hours of training to be certified to drive Gray Line buses. In Juneau, there are about 45 tour buses, Carroll said.

"Mendenhall Glacier is the most popular (tour sight)," he said. Along with cruise ship tourists, many of their customers are independent travelers.

Juneau local, Kristin Cadigan, manager of Nor'Westerly gift shop, offering handmade jewelry, Christmas and winter items and typical tourist gadgets, has been busy un-packing and getting ready for the season.

She said once the sidewalks cleared of snow she has been trying to tag her inventory and get everything out in preparation for bigger shipments to come.

"It's exciting but nerve wracking!" Cadigan said.

Along with the crowds of tourists flocking streets, restaurants and shops, the season brings back college students ready to make money and enjoy the summer.

"Juneau's visitor industry gives many of our young people their first work experience. We are fortunate as a community to have so many opportunities for them to learn how to interact with a wide variety of people from all over the world," Palmer said.