Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
Visitors depart from the Baranoff Hotel in downtown Juneau on Thursday, June 3, 2021, just days after the typically year-round hotel reopened its doors after closing for the COVID-19 pandemic. Travelers are returning, hoteliers say, but many of their rooms remain empty.

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire Visitors depart from the Baranoff Hotel in downtown Juneau on Thursday, June 3, 2021, just days after the typically year-round hotel reopened its doors after closing for the COVID-19 pandemic. Travelers are returning, hoteliers say, but many of their rooms remain empty.

Visitors numbers rebound, but hotel vacancies remain high

Travelers are coming back, but hotels have a lot of empty beds

Hotel operators and those who promote Juneau as a destination say hotel bookings are picking up but vacancies are still expected to be high for the next few months.

Things are certainly better than last year, according to Liz Perry, executive director of Travel Juneau, but still low enough to be concerning for local businesses.

“Downtown hotels are picking up pace, smaller properties are picking up at a faster pace,” Perry said in an interview with the Empire. “They’re not quite where they were in 2019, but they’re seeing some daylight.”

Travelers to Juneau typically book at least two months in advance, Perry said, and hotels typically don’t see a lot of last-minute bookings. Numbers are picking up for later in the summer, she said, and hotels in Juneau often see an increase in reservations made for late summer or early fall made in late June and early July.

[US House passes bill that could allow an Alaska cruise season]

Both the Baranoff Hotel and the Four Points by Sheraton Juneau were only at about 40% capacity, according to Dana Ruaro, regional director for the hotels.

“Normally we’d be at like 85% occupancy at this time,” Ruaro said.

Local tax data paints a similar picture.

An analysis of reported room tax from the City and Borough of Juneau shows the reported room tax from hotels steadily increasing from 2013-2019, before significantly dropping off in 2020. In 2019, CBJ reported $1.4 million in room tax from hotels and only $769,000 for 2020. Room tax from non-hotel lodging saw a similar drop off; in 2019 CBJ reported $218,000 in non-hotel room tax versus only $100,000 in 2020.

The Four Points in Anchorage was doing much better, she said, but Juneau doesn’t see as many last-minute travelers. Ruaro was hopeful for the late summer season but said she had already had to lower rates and that the Baranoff would be closed through the winter.

“Especially after this summer,” Ruaro said, “we’re not going to be able to keep everybody employed through the winter.”

But there’s already enough tourists in town that visitors are having trouble finding rental cars, Perry said. In fact, visitors are so strapped for rental cars they’re hiring U-Haul trucks simply for transportation, she said, an issue other states are facing too.

Jeff Lockwood, public relations manager for U-Haul, said in an email the company was aware the trend was happening but could not provide specific data.

In April, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced a $150 million plan to help Alaska’s tourism industry and has launched an ad campaign in the Lower 48 aimed at bringing visitors to the state. Part of that package included offer free COVID-19 vaccines to anyone ages 12 and older and as of June 1, the state’s three largest airports have walk-in vaccine clinics open daily.

It’s too soon to tell to what extent that plan has impacted the capital city.

Official data from the Federal Aviation Administration won’t be available until later this year, said Patty Wahto, airport manager at Juneau International Airport. Currently, airport officials only have the numbers of enplanements reported to them by the major airlines, Wahto said, but those numbers reflect only one portion of the airport’s travel numbers.

“Airlines is one part of it and we’re seeing that rebound,” Wahto said, “but we don’t have a full grasp on what’s happening with the small carriers.”

Smaller carriers account for roughly one-third of the airport’s enplanements, Wahto said.

Perry expressed cautious optimism that all kinds of tourism would increase as the summer progressed and cruise ships returned. According to Cruise Lines International Association, large cruise ships will begin arriving in Southeast Alaska in late July. The CLIA calendar shows both Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas and Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Wonder set to arrive Friday, July 23.

Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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