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Companies cut Alaska cruises this summer

Southeast to see fewer ships as cruise lines cut sailings in wake of downturn

Posted: Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Spirit of Alaska is among cruise ships that won't be sailing in Alaska starting this summer and next.

A spokesman for Royal Caribbean said this week that the 2,100-passenger Serenade of the Seas won't be returning in 2010. Last year the ship - one of three similar-size ships the company sails here - brought about 42,000 passengers to Alaska, about 4 percent of the total capacity of large cruise ships in Alaska.

But that's next year. This summer, Southeast will see fewer small ships.

Cruise West spokeswoman Jerrol Golden said three of the eight ships that came to Alaska last year won't be returning. Those three ships accounted for 40 percent of Cruise West's 15,400-passenger capacity last year.

The Spirit of '98, a 96-passenger ship, is moving into a Columbia River cruise now that Majestic America isn't sailing there. The Spirit of Glacier Bay and the Spirit of Alaska also won't be returning.

"We believe there will be less demand than in 2008, which was a record year for everyone," Golden said.

The company is now in the thick of booking season. Golden said people were booking later this year than usual, and Cruise West was offering some early-booking discounts, but that she was "optimistic."

In 2009, Southeast also won't see Majestic America's Empress of the North.

Majestic's owner, Ambassadors International Inc., offered the line for sale last year but found no takers, and announced last year it wouldn't sail any cruises in 2009. The 235-passenger Empress was scheduled for 21 voyages in Alaska last year, with a maximum of 4,935 passengers over the season.

Alaska Cruise Association spokesman John Binkley said the Royal Caribbean redeployment was the only large-ship reduction he knew of. Last year, a bit more than 1 million cruise passengers sailed on 31 large ships in Alaska.

Royal Caribbean spokesman Don Habeger said the high cost of doing business in Alaska was one reason for the shift, including state and local taxes and fees.

Cruise lines fought a 2006 ballot initiative that added a $50 tax to all passengers. But Binkley said he didn't have specific requests for state lawmakers to remove the tax in this legislative session.

"There's a lot of factors, and head taxes are just one of the factors," he said of deployment decisions.

The Royal Caribbean reduction could mean the loss of about $37 million in passenger and cruise line spending in Alaska. That's based on a total cruise ship impact of $914 million in direct spending from a 2007 study, and it doesn't include indirect spending.

Bbookings are down for this season, but they've picked up in the last couple weeks as companies offer more discounts, Binkley said.

Right now fares are around $500, he said, about half the ammount of last year's cost.

"Now they're trying to rebound the prices a bit, trying to find the sweet spot: where people still book, but they're generating some income and revenue," Binkley said.

Cruise lines took a similar tack of discounting after 9/11, when people were afraid to travel, Binkley said. But lower-priced tickets might affect how much money local communities take in, he said.

"The reaction seemed to be that as people paid less, they spent less. That's a concern for this season," he said.

Many Southeast tour operators rely on cruise traffic. One, Chris Conder of the one-man Rum Runner Charters in Juneau, said that while it's too early to say for sure, he's expecting a slow year.

"I'm bracing for that," he said.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.



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