History of the Alaska cruise industry

Visitors have cruised north to Alaska to sightsee for more than a century. The business was pioneered by Pacific Coast Steamship Co. of San Francisco in the 1880s. Pacific launched monthly voyages to Alaska and Alaska’s beauty has captivated tourists ever since. Alaska will greet an estimated 1.4 million cruise visitors this year, thanks to the growing interest in cruising and the support of Alaska residents and its elected officials.

Alaska cruise ship passengers


Source: Cruise Lines Agencies of Alaska
*2020 number estimated.

Here are highlights over the past few years:

Alaska closed the books on its best cruise season ever in 2019 when it greeted 1.33 million cruise visitors, a 14% increase over the prior year.

The state expects to welcome 1.4 million cruise visitors in 2020, an estimated 6% increase over 2019. With the addition of a second dock, Icy Straits Point is scheduled to receive 383,834 guests, a 50.6% increase while scheduling changes will most impact Haines and Kodiak.


In early 2009, it was announced that Alaska would lose three cruise ships and approximately 142,000 passengers in the 2010 season – a 17% decline in cruise business after 30 years of growth. That loss equated to:

  • $165 million/year in lost revenues, cruise line purchases, passenger spending, jobs and payroll
  • 51,000 fewer crew visits to Alaska ports
  • 1,800 fewer full-time jobs for Alaskans


In April 2010, the Alaska State Legislature passed SB 312, paving the way to a comeback for the state’s cruise businesses. The bill adjusted the cruise passenger excise tax from $46 to $34.50, with a credit for head taxes charged by other ports.

Reducing operating costs through adopting a more competitive tax structure has been key to putting Alaska back on a path for growth, and SB 312 had a swift, positive effect on Alaska’s visitor industry.


While cruise passengers were down in 2009 and 2010, signs of improvement began to appear in 2011. Disney and Oceania added Alaska cruises to their itineraries, along with four new ships – Disney Wonder, Crystal Symphony, Oceania Regatta and Silversea Silver. Nearly 940,000 cruise passengers visited Alaska in 2012.


In 2012, Alaska received approximately 65% of all port-of-call cruise passenger visits in the U.S. Passenger and crew onshore spending was an estimated $520 million. The cruise industry in Alaska employed 22,632 residents, contributing $1 billion in total income.


Cruise ship passengers accounted for just over half of the estimated 1.9 million out-of-state visitors who traveled to Alaska between October 2012 and September 2013. The legislature passed SB 80, which allows the Department of Environmental Conservation to permit wastewater discharge from large commercial vessels in a manner consistent with other dischargers.


Some 51% of Alaska’s record high of 1.96 million visitors in 2014 came to the Last Frontier aboard a cruise ship. Travel Leaders Group says Alaska cruises topped visits to Las Vegas as America’s top domestic vacation in 2014.


Alaska’s cruise industry continues to fuel tourism in the Last Frontier, but the state still presents challenges for operators. Higher Alaska fuel prices, some of the highest passenger head taxes in the world and increased demand for Asian cruises have impacted Alaska’s worldwide share of cruise visitors. The ships that call on Alaska begin installing super scrubbers, which remove 98% of particulates. French luxury yacht company Ponant sends two ships to Alaska.


Alaska continued to see larger ships as 31 vessels made 477 voyages and carried 1,015 visitors. Many of the ships had been retrofitted with exhaust gas cleaning systems that remove more than 98 percent of the particulate matter.


It was another record year for Alaska cruising, with 33 ships calling 497 times, carrying 1.089 passengers. For the first time ever, Ketchikan welcomed its 1 millionth cruise visitor.


The Alaska cruise industry continued to sail to new heights after a record setting year in 2017. In 2018, cruise ships crossing the Gulf of Alaska increased by approximately 20% with projections of a 7% increase in total passengers to the state. Alaska ports experienced larger ships, including the inaugural season of the Norwegian Bliss, the first large ship specially built for Alaska. Windstar returned to the Last Frontier and American Cruise Lines, one of the biggest cruise companies in the U.S., sent its American Constellation, a new coastal cruise ship, to explore Southeast Alaska.


Thirty-seven ships delivered 1.3 cruise visitors in 2019, a new record. The National Geographic Orion offered unique cruises in the Bering Sea while the Roald Amundsen, the world’s first hybrid ship, made its inaugural voyage through the Northwest Passage. In Juneau, the industry and the local government ended their long-standing lawsuit over uses of head tax money.