John Litten, owner,
Name: John Litten
Business name: Sitka Tours
Briefly describe business: Sitka Tours is a small transportation company that has been serving visitors to Sitka since the late 1960s. We provide sightseeing tours to the major local attractions, transfer service for cruise line-based tour operators and scheduled shuttle service from the Alaska Marine Highway to local hotels.
When did you first become involved in the visitor industry? After visiting Sitka a number of times in the early 1970s, I was offered a position to manage the Sitka Tour transportation business. At that time, it was just developing its relationship with visiting cruise lines.
How did you get your start with the cruise industry? When I started working in Sitka, the cruise industry was in its relative infancy throughout Southeast Alaska. There were very few ships operating in Southeast waters and port calls were somewhat sporadic. Historically, that has always been the case for Sitka – we do not face the inside passage so port visits comprise less than a third of the total ship traffic in Southeast. As manager of the local school bus service, we were the only commercial transportation on the island. We were encouraged to develop sightseeing services by early visitor industry pioneers Bob Giersdorf, Chuck West and Norm Kneisel.
What’s the best part of your job? The incredible opportunity to meet and make lifetime friends from every corner of the world.
What’s your favorite cruise passenger story? The cruise ship MS Princendam caught fire Oct. 4, 1980 off the coast of Sitka and eventually sank in the Gulf of Alaska. All 423 passengers and crew were saved by the Sitka Coast Guard Air Station and transported to an oil tanker and the USCG cutter Boutwell that were traveling in Alaska Gulf waters nearby. Bill Behnkin was working for Holland America in Seattle and flew to Valdez to care for passengers brought in on the oil tanker. There were no other cruise line employees working in Alaska as the Alaska cruise season had ended three weeks prior, so I took over the responsibility of caring for the almost 200 passengers who arrived in Sitka off the Boutwell. No lives were lost and it was the most successful open ocean rescue in the history of the cruise industry at that time.
What should Alaska do to better support/protect the visitor/cruise industry? As demonstrated with our AlaskaACT organization, people working and making a living in this cruise line-supported industry need to continue to speak out and help other Alaskans and Alaska lawmakers understand the importance of having a healthy cruise industry. We need to support common sense regulatory changes that will provide for the economic health of the cruise industry and protect Alaska’s waters.