In the wake of canceled cruise stops, Valdez official says businesses should focus on in-state tourism

a town can be seen from an aerial view out of a plane
An aerial view shows the town, harbor, and Port of Valdez. (Courtesy Joseph/Cabin on the Road/CC BY-SA)

Norwegian Cruise Lines abruptly canceled the rest of its season’s stops in Valdez late last month, leaving local businesses scrambling. The city said the cancellations account for about a third of the expected cruise guests this summer. And for at least one tourism company, the Norwegian passengers made up nearly all of its business.

Brian Rhodes is the owner of Keystone Tourism, a sightseeing company he started this summer based on the planned number of cruise visitors. He said over the past two years, city officials have been promoting the increasing cruise traffic to Valdez business owners, and he never realized those scheduled stops were not guaranteed.

“It came (as) a shock, not only for me, but the other business owners in town, that there was no legal binding agreement between these enormous companies,” Rhodes said. “To not even be held accountable to finish out the season was really kind of hard, because then you could adjust from there. But I mean, a lot of small businesses were left holding the bag, you know, and that’s what the real bottom line is.” 

Rhodes said he plans to sell his guide business. 

In a written statement, Norwegian Cruise Lines said it tries to maintain original itineraries, but “at times modifications are made to optimize the itinerary or to accommodate certain circumstances.”

Valdez Ports and Harbor Director Jeremy Talbott said that Norwegian pulling out is a big hit to the local economy, but the city has consistently cautioned business owners to focus on in-state visitors. Alaskan tourists still make up the majority of Valdez tourists, Talbott said, and are much more reliable than cruise lines.

 The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jeremy Talbott: I think we’ve made it very clear – when the vessels first started coming back, we do a lot of trainings and stuff to help businesses, we offer at every one of these meetings, these business meetings I attend. And we’ve discussed this quite a bit. And I’ve been pretty vocal about reminding everybody that hey, this happened before. And I specifically myself have said, this is the dessert, this is not the main course. We are a community that is RV, Alaskan-situated. And so if your business can survive really well with the local tourism that we have, year in and year out Alaskans and RVs, and it can adapt to cruise ships and provide some of those excursions. But don’t depend on the cruise ships. We’ve been very vocal at every meeting since early 2017, before the first boat arrived, and since then at every other public meeting.

Michael Fanelli: You said you’ve experienced this before? Is this a somewhat common thing for cruise lines to cancel a whole season of stops?

JT: Yes, mid-season, this has happened before. It has not impacted our community like this one has. This one specific one that canceled last season, they canceled 25-plus runs. They were coming on Wednesdays and Saturdays doing a passenger transfer in and out of, between Whittier and Valdez. This one we felt more impact because this one was spending 12 hours here, and they were booking excursions and recreating in the city. And so our local businesses  are really feeling the impact from this one. The last one they didn’t feel the impact because they weren’t spending a lot of time here, were not booking excursions.

MF: So what did (Norwegian) tell you? Did they give you any explanation for why they were canceling?

JT: So before they did it, no. I have had a meeting with one of their team members… And it wasn’t one single thing, it was multiple things. But they’re in the business of making a profit, and so I’m assuming that had, you know – the boat when it was coming in was only coming in half full. That run was not selling very well, and I think that somebody just made a decision that it wasn’t enough to be profitable for them. I asked them during that conversation if there was a problem with the dock there, and they’ve confirmed no problem with the dock. 

Other cruise lines are operating, you know, similar routes successfully and they’re adding more vessels. Viking is adding a second ship in 2025, Holland continues to come in and come out, Carnival’s coming in next year. And so we have returning vessels. It’s disappointing, but I don’t think that the city is the reason why they’re not coming here.

Michael Fanelli reported on economics and hosted the statewide morning news at Alaska Public Media. 

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