Welcome to the Northland
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.
Today Alaska is America’s premier cruise destination, and the state will greet an estimated 1.65 million cruise visitors this year.
Alaska Cruise Ship Passengers Per Year
Source: Cruise Lines Agencies of Alaska
2020 – No passengers in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions.
2023 – Numbers estimated.
Here are Highlights Over the Past Few Years:
Around 40 large ships returned to Alaska the summer of 2022. While capacity was less than optimal during the first part of the season, it increased to a seasonal average of 74% as visitors became more comfortable with traveling following the pandemic. A total of 1.12 million cruise visitors arrived in Juneau. Southcentral welcomed its first cruise passengers after a two-year lull and the Alaska Railroad reported one of its best years on record.
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, Lt. Governor Kevin Meyer and City of Ketchikan Mayor Bob Sivertsen joined community members in Ketchikan on July 9 to welcome Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas, the first large cruise ship to return to Alaska following the suspension of cruise operations due to the pandemic. Eight cruise ships returned to Alaska for an abbreviated schedule after Alaska’s Congressional delegation pushed the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act through Congress and signed by President Biden. The bill temporarily allowed specific foreign-owned and foreign-flagged cruise ships to transport passengers directly between ports in the states of Washington and Alaska without stopping in Canada. Over 124,000 cruise visitors came during the short season.
Disaster struck when the world went into COVID lockdown and the CDC halted all cruising. Alaska went from expecting 1.5 million cruise passengers in 2020 to a single small ship. Businesses throughout the state were forced to shut down and lay off employees. The state estimates the cruise shutdown cost Alaska $1.7 billion a year.
Thirty-seven ships delivered 1.3 million 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.
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.
It was another record year for Alaska cruising, with 33 ships calling 497 times, carrying 1.089 million passengers. For the first time ever, Ketchikan welcomed its 1 millionth cruise visitor.
Alaska continued to see larger ships as 31 vessels made 477 voyages and carried 1.026 million visitors. Many of the ships had been retrofitted with exhaust gas cleaning systems that remove more than 98 percent of particulate matter.
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 Exhaust Gas Cleaning Systems, which remove 98% of particulates. French luxury yacht company PONANT sends two ships to Alaska.
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.
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, while maintaining the strictest standards in the world.
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.
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’s Silver Explorer. 883,000 cruise passengers visited Alaska in 2011.
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.
High costs of doing business in the state resulted in big losses. 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