Following a record year for cruising, Alaska says a leveling off is welcome


Following a record-breaking year, the number of cruisers in Alaska is expected to be relatively flat this summer — something that members of the industry say could mean a better experience for both visitors and locals.

The stable numbers are “a really good thing” and will give communities time to decide how to manage cruise traffic and tour operators the ability to refine their operations, said Renee Limoge Reeve, vice president of government and community relations for CLIA Alaska.

Having a couple years of flat growth, she said, “is going to be beneficial to some of these businesses that want to expand their tour operations or excursion availability.”

In 2023, Alaska saw a record-breaking 1.7 million cruise visitors, up from the previous record of 1.3 million in 2019, according to the Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA).

The communities around cruise destinations have had to adjust to that bump, Reeve said. Local media reports show that some business owners and tour operators found it difficult to keep up with the volume of visitors last summer.

“What you’re seeing now is communities have an opportunity to take a breath and say, ‘OK, this is where we’re at,'” Reeve said.

Last year, Juneau was one of those communities. The city and borough worked with CLIA to strike a deal capping the number of cruise ships that can call there at five per day.

The restriction, which went into effect this season, does not limit the size or capacity of visiting ships, but Jillian Simpson, CEO of the ATIA, said she expects officials in tourist destinations around the state to have more of those conversations.

Part of the growth issues, she said, is that while cruise numbers have actually grown on a “gentle slope,” it appears more dramatic due to the Covid years, when “we went down to almost nothing.”

Although cruise traffic is expected to remain steady, several ports are looking to grow, and new ones are opening, which will help spread out cruise traffic.

For instance, a new indigenous-owned cruise port near the Tlingit village of Klawock opened in May. Port Klawock is accessible only by sea or air, and it will mainly host small premium and luxury ships via tender this year.

The new port is the latest project from Na-Dena, a joint venture between the Alaska Native corporations Huna Totem and Doyon, and Klawock Heenya, the Alaska Native village corporation of Klawock.

Other destinations are looking to build new docks. For instance, the state of Alaska has given the initial green light to replace an aging cruise ship dock in Seward to accommodate larger ships. As part of the project, the Alaska Railroad is pursuing a $137 million plan to build a terminal that can also accommodate shore power. The project is estimated to be ready by the 2026 cruise season.

New ships are coming to Alaska

While cruise lines expect their Alaska numbers to be steady this year, several have beefed up advertising for their Last Frontier sailings, and some are sending newer and larger ships.

Princess Cruises and Holland America Line launched new marketing campaigns for Alaska, while Celebrity Cruises has opted to sail an Edge-class ship there for the first time.

The Celebrity Edge will sail mostly seven-day Alaska cruises out of Seattle this summer. Sister brand Silversea Cruises put its newest ship, the Silver Nova, on weeklong Alaska cruises from Vancouver and Seward. Both ships are the first of their respective classes and designed with more spaces to take in ocean and mountain views.

“You can see water everywhere,” said Jason Liberty, CEO of Royal Caribbean Group, about why the company is putting newer tonnage in Alaska. “A lot of it is not just stopping at a destination. It’s sailing through the fjords out there and getting the opportunity to see all the wildlife and nature that’s there. Those ships allow us to be able to do that.”

Alaska has been one of the company’s strongest-performing destinations this year and remains in a record booked position, according to Royal Caribbean Group.

Adam Wolf, managing member of Adventure Horizons, an affiliate with Avoya Travel, considers himself an expert in Alaska cruising. He said cruise lines sending newer, larger tonnage into the Alaska market is a game-changer and says something about confidence in the Alaska market.

“They trust that they’re going to be able to fill the ships, their bottom-line revenue,” he said. “I think that speaks volumes that, ‘We’re not going to bring this ship to Europe. We’re going to take it to Alaska.'”

Courtesy of Travel Weekly

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