Southeast invests in tourism hoping for big return

Cruise visitors wait in line at the Ketchikan Visitors’ Bureau building to buy shore excursions. (Photo by Leila Kheiry/KRBD)

Southeast Alaska cities have invested a lot of energy, money and infrastructure into supporting the tourism industry.

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What do the communities get in return?

With bigger and bigger cruise ships bringing more and more passengers to the Inside Passage, we took a look at how Southeast Alaska in general, and Ketchikan specifically, benefit from all those people.

The new mega-cruise ship Norwegian Bliss docks in Ketchikan, bringing 4,000 passengers – about double the number a regular ship can hold.

Combine that with other ships in port on a typical Monday, and the community of Ketchikan’s population pretty much doubles that day throughout the tour season.

Vendors stand behind Ketchikan Visitors Bureau counter, fielding questions and – most important – selling tours to the thousands of visitors streaming through.

Loren McCue sells helicopter tours.

“The Bliss is so enormous,” McCue said. “There’s not enough tours and things to do. They line up. It’s like a feeding frenzy.”

McCue said the city’s infrastructure isn’t set up yet for that many people.

What will it be like when more of those huge ships start coming regularly?

“I think they really have to rethink restrooms, traffic,” McCue said. “There’s a lot of issues that come along with it.”

The Norwegian Bliss is docked at Ketchikan’s Berth 3 on June 11, 2018. (Photo by Leila Kheiry/KRBD)

City officials are working with consultants on a multi-million-dollar project to reconfigure not only the docks to allow for bigger ships, but the uplands, to accommodate more people.

It’s a tough balance for a community of roughly 14,000 year-round residents.

Those big ships will be an economic boon,

“It’s a gold mine, the Mondays,” McCue said. “We say that we’ve been Bliss-tered.”

Visitors Bureau Executive Director Patty Mackie brought along information from a recently released McDowell Group report on tourism’s economic impact for Ketchikan.

Mackie said total spending in Ketchikan by the industry, including all visitors, cruise ships and crew members, is about $223 million a year.

“That’s a big number. $187 million of that, so the vast majority, really is visitor spending,” Mackie said. “That’s on things like shopping, tours, food and beverage and transportation.”

Mackie said all that spending benefits not only the businesses, but the community in general through sales-tax revenue.

“The amount that (visitors pay), according to our research, is about 25 percent of what’s collected each year,” Mackie said. “If you’re paying 6.5 percent sales tax right now, you’d probably be looking at paying over eight percent if you didn’t have that revenue being generated by our visitors.”

Mackie hears the complaints about tourism, the related congestion and the amount spent on port improvements, but she said most people in Ketchikan understand tourism has been good for the local economy.

Port improvements are funded through head taxes and wharfage fees paid by the cruise lines.

Mackie added that 90 percent of tourism businesses in Ketchikan are locally owned, or at least Alaska-owned, and tourism-related jobs have gone up in recent years.

Meilani Schijvens, director of Juneau-based research firm Rain Coast Data, said last year’s Southeast By The Numbers report for Southeast Conference report had one number that really surprised her: For the first time, the visitor industry was No. 1 in terms of private-sector wages in Southeast.

That’s not because they’re paid particularly well.

“It’s really among the lowest of all sectors in terms of wages,” Schijvens said. “You need a lot of visitor industry jobs to create that level of wages that’s now being provided in the region.”

The average annual income for workers in all industries across Southeast Alaska is close to $50,000. The average wage for someone in tourism is just under $30,000.

Schijvens recently completed a business-climate survey of Southeast industries, and she says the visitor industry shows the highest level of confidence — for good reason: tourism is expected to keep growing, with an estimated 1.3 million cruise passengers visiting Alaska next summer – that’s about 12 percent more than this year.

The big challenge is to make sure Southeast communities are ready for that number, Schijvens says.

Shauna Lee prepares to cast off the line in 2018 for the Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour boat. (Photo by Leila Kheiry/KRBD)

Shauna Lee’s year-round job is all about getting ready for visitors. She runs the Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s boat tour in Ketchikan.

The whole process that ends with a successful excursion starts with the cruise ship schedule, released about two years in advance.

Lee works with the cruise lines to determine how many spots each ship can sell on board, and works with visitors who purchase directly from the business.

Ketchikan offers plenty of options for shore excursions, and many of those tours hire locally, she said.

“I hear a lot of people say, ‘Well, the money just leaves town at the end of the year,’” Lee said. “Well, it’s not. Because it’s paying my mortgage. It’s paying for the mortgage of other people who work here, who live here in Ketchikan.”

Lee said other members of her family work in tourism, too.

When they buy groceries or donate to a local nonprofit, those are tourism dollars supporting the community.

Passengers start arriving, and Lee gets to work, checking in eager visitors, excited about the tour.

Once they’re all on board, Lee casts the boat’s lines and they’re off.

Just like that, a two-year process is completed. Now, on to the next one.

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