Juneau transforms from politics to tourist town

JUNEAU, Alaska — The week after Alaska’s 90 day legislative session comes to a close, its capital seems to slow down and take a huge sigh of relief.

Juneau’s streets are quieter, its restaurants are emptier; hotels are ghost towns.

The city may seem like a sleepy town now, but in about a week or two, merchants will be accepting money from people wearing sandals and shorts instead of suits and wingtips.

“Instead of in-state visitors, we get out-of-state visitors,” says Wayne Jensen, the chairman of the Alaska Council. “And some of the things that Juneau has attracts both.”

Tourists from the Lower 48 and around the world come to enjoy Juneau’s verdant forests, cerulean glaciers and other natural attractions.

The summer season’s first cruise ship, the Carnival Miracle, is scheduled to arrive on May 2, marking the start of tourist season. The Miracle can hold up to 2,214 passengers.

During the first two weeks of May, fewer ships come in, easing the community into the season. After that, the cruise ships start rolling in by the dozen.

“It happens pretty fast,” says Cynthia Murray, owner of Juneau Adventure Tours. “It’s like clockwork.”

Juneau — a city of 32,164 — usually hosts around a million visitors during the summer season, according to Nancy Woizeschke, the president and CEO of the Juneau Convention and Tourism Bureau. And the tourists bring in plenty of revenue; in 2008 each one spent on average $144 dollars in Alaska’s capital.

In 2011, the city hosted 61 percent of all of out-of-state visitors — making it the No. 1 visitor destination in the state, according to the Juneau Economic Development Council.

This season, Woizeschke expects to see even more tourists than normal thanks to a handful of new cruise ships and a recovering global economy.

Murray and her colleagues have already begun preparing for tourists by hiring guides, getting their equipment out of storage and even bringing up boats from Washington state.

The city and its businesses will use the down time between the legislative session and the cruise season to tidy up.

Flags are put up along the city’s main highway, Egan Drive. The median on Egan, as well as all the planters downtown, are filled with the fresh flowers. Streets are swept and cleaned to remove the usual winter debris still left, and fresh coat of paint usually greets Juneau’s downtown buildings and street lines.

Food vendor carts even pop up on downtown street corners.

“I think it’s just an attention to detail,” Jensen says, “in making a Juneau a more desirable city for tourists.”

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