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Holland America rep: ‘Bullish’ on Alaska

Ketchikan Daily News Staff Writer

The cruise industry is optimistic for Alaska’s 2016 tourism season and beyond, according to an industry official with ties to Southeast Alaska.

Ralph Samuels, vice president of government and community relations for Holland America Line and Princess Cruises and a Metlakatla High School graduate, spoke to members of the Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce Wednesday afternoon both about the global cruise tourism industry and the industry in Alaska.

“We’re bullish on Alaska, we think we’re going to have a great year, and I think that you’re going to have a great year,” Samuels said. “Whether you’re in the government or whether you own a small business, we think things are going to go very, very well.”

Close to 1 million tourists are projected to cruise through Alaska — and Ketchikan — during the 2016 season. In addition to cruise ship passengers, Samuels claimed that the industry — through extensive marketing efforts for cruises — gets people who might not otherwise travel here interested in seeing Alaska.

Holland America vice president of government and community relations Ralph Samuels talks about the cruise ship industry and Alaska on Wednesday during a Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce Luncheon at Cape Fox Lodge. Staff photo by Taylor Balkom

Holland America vice president of government and community relations Ralph Samuels talks about the cruise ship industry and Alaska on Wednesday during a Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce Luncheon at Cape Fox  Lodge. Staff photo by Taylor Balkom

Samuels also mentioned the cruise industry’s opposition to increases in various taxes, such as the head tax, at the state level.

“I think what my message would be is: Don’t shrink a pie that doing really well right now,” Samuels said. “The goal should be to get another ship. … That’s kind of what we want to discuss is how do you try to increase the pie — because tourism’s doing very well in Alaska right now — so how do you increase the pie even more, rather than making sure you get the last nickel from the guys that are already coming.”

While it likely won’t be much of an issue during the 2016 season, the cruise industry has not taken an official stance on marijuana legalization and retail marijuana businesses, according to Samuels.

Marijuana will be illegal on ships, and there has been talk of requiring retail marijuana businesses to post signs informing customer of that, Samuels said.

“The marijuana issue for us is we don’t know … if somebody brings a bag of brownies on a cruise ship, there’s no way to tell if they’re pot brownies, so I don’t know what we’ll do,” Samuels said. “It is illegal though, and if somebody is on there (with marijuana), you’re going to disembark them. It’s going to be a problem, and we’d like to educate guests as much as we could. We don’t want to see anybody get in trouble.”

While cruise tourism brings people and money to the state, there is one thing that hurts Alaska while benefiting the industry: Low fuel prices.

“The low price of fuel, as much as it’s hurting the state, is a great boon (for the cruise industry), have no illusions about that. (Fuel) is a major cost to us,” Samuels said. “But that being said, the cost of fuel for an Alaska cruise is still more expensive than the cost of fuel for a Caribbean cruise. So, proportionally speaking, (low fuel prices are) good for the industry, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for Alaska.”

Currency exchange rates also have affected the industry, according to Samuels.

“The strong U.S. dollar right now, it hurts us almost as much as fuel helps, because the earnings are reported in U.S. dollars,” Samuels said. “So if you have an Australian company, or are selling cruises out of Vancouver with Canadians, if they’re buying with Canadian dollars that are now 60 cents on the (U.S.) dollar; or you have Australian dollars, which are low; even the Chinese currency is low compared to the U.S. dollar. So there’s a big hit and, once again, it’s not a Ketchikan issue — (you) have no control over it — but it is something you should be aware of as you look at how Alaska plays into the marketplace.”

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