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Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve uses savings to dodge layoffs in cruise ship drought

Usually, a couple of big cruise ships would be dwarfing charter boats in Bartlett Cove on a summer day. But not today.

Cruise ships aren’t scheduled to return until late July.

Most visitors to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Gustavus visit by cruise ship. Last year, none of those tourists came. That erased more than half of the park’s operating budget since cruise visitors provide nearly 70% of the park’s revenue. After a year without them, Park Director Philip Hooge says there are moths flying out of his checkbook.

“We’re gonna squeeze by, you know, we’re gonna squish by without having anybody laid off or anything … so I can sleep at night,” Hooge said.

As cruise ships announce significantly later start dates for the 2021 season, the park is poised for another lean year.

Luckily, Hooge was saving up money for some big projects and purchases. When the cruise ships stopped coming, he spent it all on employee salaries instead. Those savings will also offset this summer’s slim season.

“If we hadn’t had that reserve, you know, we would have, it would have been [a] financial disaster. If it were to continue for another year… God forbid, we would have to take dramatic and drastic steps here,” Hooge said.

Spending the savings reserve means postponing two big expenditures: a series of projects to encourage long-stay tourism in Gustavus and a sea-going boat to patrol the park’s waters. Hooge says Glacier Bay is the only marine park of its kind that doesn’t have one.

He says it will take years to build back the park’s savings.

And while there were no layoffs due to COVID-19, there was a crucial group of park employees that didn’t get re-hired: seasonal rangers. They have a special job because cruise tourists don’t get off the boats when they sail into Glacier bay. The rangers get on instead.

“The Rangers come out in the morning, they get off onto the boat, they get on the intercom system and the casino closes down, the shops … and we talk about the national history for 12 hours as people are in here,” Hooge said.

It’s a job that requires special expertise, knowledge and storytelling skills. Some of those seasonal workers have been with the park for over 20 years. The job has a nearly 100% retention rate. Hooge says it will be really hard to replace some of the veteran rangers that have had to move on.

It’s hard to ever plan for something like what we seen here, which was 100% decline in the cruise industry. And then for it to go on to most of two years. And that has been a kind of a severe financial strain,” he said.

The shortfall is a reversal for the park, which usually has income that is recession-proof. That’s because Glacier Bay has a unique funding structure among national parks. Most parks’ revenue comes from congressional appropriations — federal money. Glacier Bay gets most of its money from cruise ship passenger fees.

In lean years, when Congress appropriates fewer dollars to national parks, the cruise industry buoys Glacier Bay’s earnings. 

When cruise ships arrive in June there will be rangers, but fewer of them. The park only anticipates being able to hire back a third of the seasonal workforce even though the end of the season is likely to be full.

“It’s going to be skeleton crews [and] at the same time it looks like it’s going to be a full house. So we’re kind of buckling our seatbelt. You know, it’s probably not going to be the level of service that we are wanting, but also I think the public is pent up demand and they’re going to be happy to just be outside, so I think it’ll all it will work out in a positive way,” Hooge said.

This season will be late and short, but Hooge says he’d be surprised if 2022 wasn’t robust. Even if it isn’t, he says  Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve only needs to make half of its usual income to make it.

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