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2012′s Cruise Season Was Up, But Not Everywhere

By Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau | October 8, 2012 – 12:00 pm

Suzan Hess is setting up a beer tent as part of the Sitka Chamber of Commerce season-end celebration.

She’s co-owner of the Baranof Island Brewing Company. The business began in 2010, so it’s still figuring out the tourism market. But Hess says it’s been great.

“We’ve had a really good year. Business is growing. More people who live in the community are bringing people out to the brewery when they come to visit. We’re getting more cruise ship passengers. We’re getting more independent travelers. And we definitely noticed a difference in the charter fishermen who are making their way out to the brewery as well,” Hess says.

Sitka expected up to see about 110,000 passengers this season, about 20 percent fewer than last summer and almost a third of the number about five years ago. Rough weather also cancelled its final two ships, shrinking the 2012 season even more.

But statewide, the passenger count grew. Industry officials say about 940,000 people sailed Alaska waters this year. That’s about a 6 percent increase from the previous season.

“There were more ships brought back to Alaska. Some had longer itineraries, maybe another sailing either in early spring or the late fall, and [there were] some bigger ships as well,” says John Binkley, president of the Alaska Cruise Association.

He says the industry’s uptick involves more than passenger numbers.

“Different areas of Alaska are affected differently. But I would say just anecdotally, in talking to people around the state, that the spending was up as well. Not only more visitors to increase the overall amount of economic activity, but also the amount that each visitor spent I think was a little bit higher this year than last year,” he says.

Cruise ship traffic affects most of the state. Some ships sailing through Southeast go on to Southcentral, where tourists move to buses or trains that take them to railbelt and other locations. And a couple ships sail as far as Kodiak, Homer and Unalaska.

Additional passengers increase business on shore. But there are other factors.

In Southeast, the wet summer took its toll.

“Anytime somebody’s on vacation and it’s pouring rain, some people take that as the cue,” says Tyler Hickman, vice president of Icy Strait Point, a renovated cannery and cruise-ship attraction in Hoonah, west of Juneau.

“It certainly impacts retail, food and beverage, and tours. The walk-up sales you might normally get on that kind of day just don’t appear,” he says.

Icy Strait’s biggest show is a mile-long zipline ride over the rainforest. It lost some passengers to the weather this year. But Hickman says whale-watching excursions went well, with sightings of pods of up to 70 humpbacks.

The destination expanded its retail area this year, giving some stores more space and making room for others, such as a doughnut shop. Hickman says that helped make up for passengers reluctant to spend a lot of money.

“I would have to say that probably the real high-end stuff was down a bit. I think spending habits certainly changed, but we were quite successful with it,” he says.

Route changes cost Icy Strait about 5 percent of passenger capacity this year. But another cruise-ship shuffle will bring that back up next year, to about 130,000.

Cruise lines set their schedules far in advance. Industry spokesman Binkley says the 2013 calendar increases capacity.

“For next year, it’s a combination of more ships, larger ships and more sailings for the ships that are coming. So the combination of all that should push us right over the million-passenger mark,” Binkley says.

That’s where it was about five years ago.

Back in Sitka, locals are checking out gift-shop sales and lining up for free burgers as the Season’s End celebration moves into high gear.

At the beer tent, Baranof Brewery’s Hess is looking forward to next summer.

“We are planning to work with another business in town to have the brewery tour be part of the tour they sell. And just continue to grow and increase production and distribution of beer. And maybe be more active to encourage tourists from downtown to take the shuttle out there,” she says.

As a relatively new attraction, she expects the brewery to do well. But she’s worried for other Sitka businesses.

“They’re our neighbors and friends who are supporting us that are losing out because of cruise ship tourism decreasing,” Hess says.

The 2013 season begins in April, when the Crystal Symphony sails from Japan to Dutch Harbor, Kodiak and Ketchikan. By May, other ships will be cruising north from Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco.

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