Small Cruise Lines Send More Ships to Alaska

Photo by InnerSea Discoveries: The Wilderness Adventurer

A pair of small, high-end cruise lines are expanding their Alaska fleets. The Seattle-based companies are filling some of the void left when Cruise West went out of business about a year ago.

InnerSea Discoveries already sails two small ships between Juneau and Ketchikan. Sister company American Safari sails three luxury yachts from Juneau to Glacier Bay and other locations.

Both plan to expand Alaska sailings to capture an increasing American market.

“A lot of people are choosing to stay home and not travel over to Europe where, of course, the dollar is not doing so well,” says Tim Jacox, executive vice president of sales and marketing for the lines.

He says the exchange rate is also making Alaska more attractive to foreign travelers: “So you’re going to see more international visitors. We had a banner year this year, and we expect the same next year, from especially the Australia-New Zealand markets.”

He also says the growth is helped by the great deal the companies got on out-of-use Cruise West vessels. The longtime small-ship line ended its business last August.

InnerSea Discoveries recently announced it will add the 76-passenger Wilderness Explorer to its Alaska roster next summer. Week-long trips between Sitka and Juneau will include Glacier Bay and other remote areas.

The ship used to sail Southeast as Cruise West’s 86-berth Spirit of Discovery. Jacox says it’s being renovated to be less crowded and provide more amenities.

“We’ll go ahead and change out the lounge with more of a 1940s National Park Service lodge motif. It’ll be a pub-like atmosphere for sharing stories of all the events of the day. So we’ll install 10 microbrew taps to make that happen,” Jaycox says.

Fares will range from $3,000 to $6,000 for seven-day trips.

American Safari, the InnerSea’s higher-end brand, has acquired Cruise West’s 102-passenger Spirit of Endeavour. It’s now called the Safari Endeavour and is being reconfigured to handle 86 passengers. It will sail from Juneau to Glacier Bay, Endicott Arm and Icy Strait.

Jacox says eight berths are being turned into four two-room suites, with outside balconies. The company will also add massage rooms and hot tubs.

“And then with the additional space we will be adding a wine bar in the longue area and also a library in the dining area. So those are additional public spaces and meeting areas that didn’t exist on that boat before,” Jaycox says.

Fares will start at about $4,800.

The company is also adding the former Cruise West Spirit of 98, which will become the Safari Legacy. It will also be refurbished, with tours starting in 2013. Sailings, between Sitka and Juneau, will include Glacier Bay.

The two lines’ small passenger capacity means little impact on the overall number of people cruising state waters. But John Binkley of the Alaska Cruise Association says it’s still significant.

“We’re glad to see them increase their capacity. I know a lot of smaller communities get a lot of business from them. And It’s a great product,” Binkley says. “Princess will be adding a new ship next year. That will add about 50,000 passengers to the Alaska market. They’ll be coming across the Gulf of Alaska to Southcentral so that will help all parts of Alaska.”

He says Holland-America is also between 5 to 7 percent capacity with a different mix of ships. And Disney has announced plans to return.

“It looks like we’ll have a significant increase in the number of visitors coming to Alaska next year,” Binkley says.

Another small-ship company, American Cruise Lines, also plans to enter the Alaska market in 2012. It will sail the 100-passenger American Spirit out of Juneau.

Sitka-based Alaskan Dream Cruises, owned by Allen Marine, is another small-ship line. The two-vessel company is also increasing its capacity next year, adding four new itineraries.

Other small lines operating in the region include The Boat Company and National Geographic/Lindblad Expeditions.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell.

He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues.

He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.

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