As cruise ships grow, more passengers are headed to Alaska

A Disney cruise ship tied up at Skagway’s ore dock. (Photo by Emily Files/KHNS)

The first cruise ships of the season begin sailing to Alaska this month. And across the state, port cities are preparing to welcome a record number of passengers.

John Binkley is the President of Cruise Lines International Association Alaska. He says the big difference this year is ship size.

“We are anticipating an increase in the number of visitors that come to Alaska on cruise ships this summer,” Binkley said. “Although, it really is driven by larger ships, rather than more ships.”

According to CLIA, the number of visitors coming to the state on cruise ships is expected to increase by 16 percent this year.

But in some communities, the number of boats is increasing, too.

Unalaska is anticipating 19 ships. More than ever before. The boats will be a bigger than they have been historically.

Carlin Enlow is Executive Director of the Unalaska/Port of Dutch Harbor Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“I think after this season, the city will be able to see what is working and what is not working,” Enlow said.

Seven ships are expected to stop in Nome this summer. Lucas Stotts, Nome’s Harbormaster, says that would be a record for the city.

In Northern Lynn Canal, Skagway is expecting to welcome just under a million passengers, about 75,000 more than last year.

And it’s the biggest season yet for Haines. The community sees far fewer ships than its neighbor to the North. But, it’s still anticipating around 10,000 more passengers than last year.

Carolanne Wooton is the tourism director in Haines. She says the town is expecting nearly 65,000 cruise ship visitors.

“I think it is a good milestone. It’s exciting to see the interest in porting in Haines,” Wooton said. “I think that we are definitely at a place where we are going to start seeing a return of our investment. And I like that, it’s great.”

Juneau is also anticipating a record-breaking year; 1.3 million passengers are on the way.

Kirby Day manages port operations out of Juneau for Holland America Group. He says the local tourism sector is in a period of growth.

“People ask me, how much is enough? When is too much? I’ve always said, when we can no longer manage the impacts to make this a great place to visit, and more importantly, a great place to live, then we’ve got to talk about it,” Day said.

Day says it’s important to have a conversation about how the community wants to embrace tourism.

Binkley, with the cruise line association, says it’s hard to know how the cruise industry will continue to grow in Alaska.

“I can remember when we were at maybe even a third of the number of cruise visitors that we have in Alaska,” Binkley said. “And it was hard to imagine we could grow any larger than that. Seemed like we were at capacity back then.”

But, Binkley says he thinks there is still room to grow. He says CLIA will continue to work with communities to preserve the quality of life in the state, while growing the economic benefits of tourism.

Cruise ships begin sailing to Alaska this month. The last ship leaves Alaska waters early October.

This story was produced with help from Zoe Sobel in Unalaska, Adelyn Baxter in Juneau, Claire Stremple in Haines, and Davis Hovey in Nome.

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