AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz, File
Royal Caribbean’s “Radiance of the Seas” docked in Seward.

AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz, File Royal Caribbean’s “Radiance of the Seas” docked in Seward.

Cruise ship ban could make dent in peninsula tourism

‘This is going to be another summer where we’re really relying on our in-state tourists to make up the difference’

Canada’s recent decision to prohibit cruise ships from operating in Canadian waters until 2022 is set to have a major impact on Alaska’s tourism industry. On the Kenai Peninsula, that impact will be felt most heavily in the City of Seward, which has historically relied on summer cruise ship passengers to maintain its economy.

Seward Mayor Christy Terry said Saturday that she was concerned about how the city would adapt to another summer without cruise ships. Sales tax revenue for Seward was down by about 75% last year, primarily because the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the cruise ship industry from operating in any real capacity in 2020, she said.

“Hearing again that we aren’t going to have cruise ships, we know that this is going to be another summer where we’re really relying on our in-state tourists to make up the difference. And I must say, Alaska really came through for us (last year). We had campgrounds that were at full capacity. We had an awesome fishing season. Our harbor was full. People were going to the SeaLife Center and eating locally at our restaurants.”

Terry said that while the increase in Alaskans coming to Seward is welcome, it is not expected to make up for the loss of cruise ship passengers. Between 2007 and 2016, Seward saw an average of about 153,000 cruise ship visitors every year, according to data from Alaska’s Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development available on the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District’s website.

Kat Sorensen, communications director for the Seward Chamber of Commerce, said Saturday that the cruise ship traffic brings a lot of money to Seward’s harbor in ways that in-state tourists do not.

“It’s a different sort of economic impact,” Sorensen said. “When a cruise ship comes in, they’re refueling at the fuel docks with Shoreside, they’re giving longshoremen work, they’re injecting all of that money into the city, and there’s no equivalent to that from independent travelers.”

Terry also said she is hopeful that Alaska’s congressional delegation and the State of Alaska could potentially find a solution that would bring the cruise ships back.

“We definitely know it’s going to be another hard season,” Terry said. “I know the congressional delegation and the governor are both working different angles and possibilities and we really hope that those are going to be successful.”

Canadian Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra’s announced Thursday that cruise vessels would be banned in all Canadian waters until Feb. 28, 2022. Later that evening, Alaska’s Congressional Delegation — which consists of Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan as well as Rep. Don Young —issued a press release calling the decision “unacceptable” and saying that they would seek a solution through legislation, if necessary.

“Canada’s announcement to ban all cruise sailings carrying 100 people or more traveling through Canadian waters, without so much as a courtesy conversation with the Alaska Delegation, is not only unexpected — it is unacceptable — and was certainly not a decision made with any consideration for Alaskans or our economy. We expect more from our Canadian allies,” the delegation wrote in the Feb. 4 press release.

“Upon hearing the announcement, we immediately reached out to Canadian and American agencies to try and understand the rationale behind this decision — particularly the duration of the ban. We are exploring all potential avenues, including changing existing laws, to ensure the cruise industry in Alaska resumes operations as soon as it is safe. We will fight to find a path forward.”

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced on Facebook Friday that he would also be looking at ways to get the cruise ships up to Alaska this summer.

“Stopping a major sector of Alaska’s economy doesn’t necessarily help our fight against the virus but will certainly have enormous consequences on Alaskan jobs and opportunities,” Dunleavy said Friday. “Canada’s decision to prohibit cruise ships this season warrants a deeper conversation as to how Alaska can keep Alaskans and travelers safe. My administration will be working with anyone and everyone to get this back on track as soon as possible.”

While a majority of the cruise ships bound for the Kenai Peninsula stop in Seward, the City of Homer has recently taken in about a dozen cruise ships each summer, with the exception of 2020. Brad Anderson, executive director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce, said Saturday that because the cruise ships are still a relatively small portion of Homer’s tourism economy, their absence will have a relatively minor impact.

“It’s something we had prepared for, and we weren’t expecting to have any cruise ships come here this year anyway,” Anderson said. “Here’s how we see it: We were anticipating that more people who want to do Alaska travel are going to do it by land now. So that means more people flying into Anchorage and doing land vacations, and Homer has always been one of the most desirable places in Alaska to visit, so it could actually benefit us if more people travel up here.”

Alaska’s two major international airports echoed Anderson’s predictions, saying in a joint press release Friday that the two airports are expecting an increase in air traffic this summer as a result of the lack of cruise ships.

“We are extremely disappointed in Canada’s decision to restrict cruise ships this summer. However, Alaska is more than just a cruise destination,” Jim Szczesniak, director of the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, said in the Friday press release. “For this summer, Alaska is forecast to be one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. ANC, and our sister airport FAI, provide access to the wonders of Alaska.”

The focus on bringing in tourism dollars through Alaskans and air travelers is common among those in the industry who are reckoning with the reality of another cruise-less summer. Tim Dillon, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, said that he will be continuing to push elected officials, like Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce, on advertising that the Kenai Peninsula is “open for business.”

“Last summer the borough mayor made some comments that got around about us being open for business,” Dillon said Saturday. “Holy cow, that next weekend, the amount of campers you saw coming down the highway was awesome. We need Charlie to keep doing that. People are listening.”

Reach reporter Brian Mazurek at bmazurek@peninsulaclarion.com.

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