Passage to Alaska

Cruising from Seattle to Juneau and other southern Alaskan ports is more popular than ever.

Cover Story

April 10, 2005|By Kristin Jackson | Kristin Jackson,Knight Ridder-Tribune

How popular is Alaska cruising?

Juneau, the Alaskan capital, is home to just 31,000 people, but it expects about 900,000 cruise-ship passengers to visit this year.

Juneau's old-fashioned downtown -- a dozen square blocks wedged between the mountains and sea -- will be awash in tourists many summer days. On a peak day, four or five big cruise ships will nose through the narrow waterways to Juneau, turning about 10,000 passengers, plus crew, loose for a day on the town.

They'll stroll and shop on the narrow downtown streets; ogle the Mendenhall Glacier at the edge of town; and climb aboard the Mount Roberts Tramway, swooping from the waterfront up a mountainside for panoramic views. The more adventurous will take "flight- seeing" or kayak tours.

Some Alaskans, especially tourism-dependent businesspeople in Juneau, Ketchikan and other small southeast Alaskan ports where the cruise ships flock, love the crowds. In the capital alone, cruise passengers will spend about $160 million this year, estimates Lorene Palmer, president of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Other Alaskans aren't so sure about the booming industry. A Juneau-based group, Responsible Cruising in Alaska, concerned about overcrowding and ships' wastewater pollution (a concern echoed by environmental groups in Washington), in December succeeded in placing an initiative on the 2006 state ballot that would toughen regulations and raise money for state coffers.

The initiative would impose a $50 per passenger tax. It would toughen environmental regulations on cruise ships' wastewater dumping in Alaska. And it would give the state a cut of the profits from shipboard casinos.

Industry supporters filed a lawsuit against the initiative in January in Alaska, arguing that some of its petition signatures are invalid. The Northwest Cruise Ship Association, a Vancouver, British Columbia, group leading the fight, has warned that the initiative could undermine Alaska's tourist industry, the state's second biggest moneymaker after the oil-and-gas industry. The Alaska Travel Industry Association and a dozen other organizations and individuals have joined in the lawsuit.

Alaska cruises have surged in popularity in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and the decline of the U.S. dollar, which makes foreign travel more expensive. Along the way, Seattle has grown into a major home port for Alaska-bound ships, with four big cruise lines basing ships at its two downtown terminals this summer.

Cruising is growing nationally, and the demographic of cruise passengers is changing," said David Blandford of Seattle's Convention and Visitors Bureau. "You get more families traveling, grandparents paying for the entire family, and more first-timers. It's good news for all cruise ports."

This year's May-September cruise season is expected to bring about 170 ship visits and 350,000 people to Seattle. That would break last year's record of 150 ship calls and 281,000 people.

Ten years ago, when cruising from Seattle was just getting going, only about 6,900 people set sail from the city. Now Seattle rivals Vancouver, long the traditional home port for Alaska cruises. Flights to Seattle are cheaper and easier for U.S. passengers, and there's no border crossing to contend with before and after the cruise.

Advance bookings better

If you're thinking about taking a cruise this summer from Seattle to Alaska, don't wait to start shopping.

"You used to be able to get the best rate by booking at the last minute; now it's by booking early," said Mark Davies, manager of Seattle's AAA travel offices.

"Some Seattle sailings are already sold out. And people are booking into 2006," he said.

Northwesterners are joining the crowd of Alaska-bound passengers, enticed by such a close-to-home port that lets them avoid air-travel expenses and hassle.

A recent survey of Carlson Wagonlit travel agencies in Seattle found that a cruise to Alaska was just as popular as one to Europe or Hawaii this year.

In the cruise season, four major lines -- Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Celebrity Cruises -- will sail from Seattle to Alaska.

On peak weekends, seven or eight ships, carrying from about 1,400 to more than 2,500 passengers each, will depart from Seattle's two downtown cruise-ship terminals, the Bell Street Pier and Terminal 30.

Some things to know when choosing a cruise:

Which port?

Seattle and Vancouver are the major ports for weeklong cruises to Alaska (San Francisco offers some 10-day cruises).

Seattle has cut into Vancouver's business in the past few years. But travelers should be aware that some ships from Seattle sail along the outside, west coast of Vancouver Island to save time before veering into the Inside Passage farther north on the British Columbia coast and continuing into southeast Alaska.

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