The record summer Alaska cruise season is drawing to a close. But already, the beautiful but sensitive region is gearing up for six per cent growth in 2020.
It will be the fifth straight year Alaska breaks records. But is the region ready?
Alaska is expecting 1.44 million cruise passengers – twice the local population. It’s one of Australia’s most popular cruise destinations.
Cruise ships account for more than half of the tourists visiting Alaska, a state with 737,438 population. Tourist arrivals are also often packed into six months, the warmer periods of April to September.
The growth has dropped from last year’s 16 per cent – but 10 new ships are expected along 29 additional port calls in 2020.
The Alaskan towns have been expanding infrastructure to keep up with the influx of visitors but some locals are still concerned by the sheer number of tourists and are starting to question the continued growth of cruise tourism.
Other areas continue to welcome visitors in a sustainable fashion and give travellers options to contribute to local initiatives, ensuring that they leave a lasting positive impact on the towns they visit.
Even the ships are feeling cramped. Just last week a Norwegian Cruise Line ship got into an altercation with local fisherman over who had the right of way in the Chilkat Inlet.
In 2020, Hoonah’s Icy Strait Point is expecting one of the biggest jump in visitors, with roughly one in three cruise passengers visiting the town as the new dock which can fit two megaships opens.
Norwegian Cruise Line and the community’s village corporation Huna Totem Corporation built the 500-foot floating dock in partnership, with a 25-year lease for the project.
With the new dock, passengers no longer have to tender ashore. It has also increased docking capacity, with 192 ships scheduled to call in 2020, up from 137 in 2019. It is however located a half-mile farther from town.
Locals are worried that it will create a tourist enclave away from downtown Hoonah. Stuart Mills, who works as a seasonal bear viewing guide in Hoonah, told local media KTOO that he’s worried that bringing in too many people could dilute what Hoonah has to offer.
“You see our town’s only 800 people. So you get 5,000 people on this ship and 5,000 people on that ship — that’s 10,000 people,” he said. “We’re going to have buses running everywhere and people running everywhere.”
“It might kind of hinder us because of the fact that we won’t have enough excursions for all the people to do what they want when they come here.”
The town has tapped into federal funds to ease cruise visitor congestion with a US$4.77 million project to expand the walkways of its harbour area in time for 2020 cruise season.
“It can be pretty overwhelming,” Hoonah City Manager Dennis Gray Jr. told KTOO. “The harbour definitely has people all over the road because there’s no sidewalk for them to be on – and so they end up in the middle of the road and things get pretty tight down there.”
Norwegian Cruise Line has also recently acquired a waterfront property in downtown Juneau with a winning bid of US$20 million. They intend to build a new dock at the property, revealed a recent Juneau Empire report.
The company has entered talks with the City Manager Rorie Watt about their plans as the property is not currently zoned for a cruise ship dock. The company wants to “demonstrably show they’d like to invest in the community,” said Mr Watt, according to the Juneau Empire.
Mr Watt told the Juneau Empire that the question for Juneau, which currently has four berths, is whether it wants to keep pace.
The addition of 500,000 cruise visitors since 2015 has meant a lot of perceived change for residents, Mr Watt said.
“It’s a lot of economic opportunity, but it’s also that your quiet neighbourhood may be less quiet,” he said.
He added: “On Juneau’s side, I would imagine we’re going to go through a period of high-level community vision-type exercises. What kind of town do we want to be, and where are we headed, and how do we plan appropriately for that? My guess is that Norwegian has jumped into the middle of that conversation, and realistically, we’re probably not going to be moving very fast. I think it will take us a while.”
Meanwhile in Ketchikan, the mayor has raised concerns about Norwegian’s proposed two berth dock for megaships in Ward Cove. This project in partnership with Ketchikan-based Ward Cove Group would allow a total of six ships to berth in the city a day.
The Alaska Public Media reported that the city asked the Army Corps to hold a public hearing before issuing any permit and Army Corps had extended the public comment period by a month.
Assistant City Manager Lacey Simpson told an economic development panel at Southeast Conference in Sitka that the city is taking a hard look at the project.
“…it has really called into question the need for expansion at the port of Ketchikan and what exactly the capacity needs are for the community as a whole,” said Ms Simpson.
Norwegian Cruise Line is not the only cruise company investing heavily in the region. Carnival Corporation has also spent US$290 million in Skagway to acquire a scenic railway and build new berths that accommodates up to two large ships.
Meanwhile, areas like the Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska have managed to continue welcoming visitors without compromising its surroundings. Visits sailing Glacier Bay continue to be limited to two ships a day; 153 days in the summer and 92 days in the shoulder season – they are all booked out for 2020.
New ten-year concession contracts effective October 1, 2019 were awarded to seven cruise lines. There are three returning lines Princess, Holland America, NCL and four newcomers Cunard, Seabourn, Viking and Royal Caribbean.
“The size of the ships may be increasing which shows an increase in visitation, but the number of allocations assigned in the contracts has not changed. The number of ships in Glacier Bay is not increasing, so it really does not impact us in the same way it may be impacting other ports in Alaska.” says Joni Seay, Chief of Commercial Services of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.
Princess Cruises and Holland America continue to hold the most number of days with NCL only having a third of their number of days during summer peak. Curnard has half of NCL’s number of days. Meanwhile, lines like Seabourn, Viking and Royal Caribbean only get sail in the bay during the shoulder season, the months of May and September.
In Juneau, there is a new program launched in June where travellers can offset their carbon footprint by supporting a energy efficient home heating replacement program. The program is run by a non profit and is called the Juneau Carbon Offset Fund, and on their website, travellers can calculate the carbon impact of individual trip components, including jet travel, cruise travel, flight-seeing tours and whale-watching outings. They are then given the option to purchase designated offsets or make flat-rate contributions to account for those activities.
Renewable Juneau estimates that each heating system upgrade eliminates an average of 17,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, per home, and reduces annual home heating costs by up to 50%.
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