When most people in Alaska think of cruise ships, they think big. But the small cruise ship industry is drawing thousands of people to Southeast every summer - and leaving in its wake a significant amount of money.
"The smaller cruise companies have been in existence for quite some time but there's been a steady growth over the years, a gradual and steady growth," said Don Habeger of Cruiseline Agencies of Alaska, a service organization that coordinates all the shore-side logistics of the cruise industry.
"The small cruise ship industry definitely has a positive economic impact on our community," said John Mazor, president of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Many of these ships start or end in Juneau, as well as other Southeast communities, and many people come up early or stay in town after their cruise.
"Last year, Cruise West (a small cruise company) booked 5,000 room nights in Juneau," Mazor said. "That is very notable."
With eight vessels that carry 54 to 144 passengers, Alaska Sightseeing Cruise West expects to bring more than 12,000 visitors to Southeast this season.
"Last year, we had just over 11,000 passengers but with the addition of our newest vessel, the Spirit of Oceanus, there will be a slight increase this season," said Larry Johansen, the Southeast regional manager for the family-owned Alaska Sightseeing Cruise West.
"Juneau is our turnaround port for a variety of our vessels and many of our guests stay over on either end of the cruise. Ninety-five percent of our passengers will overnight in Juneau this summer," he said.
Along with operating small cruise ships in Southeast for the past 50 years, Alaska Sightseeing Cruise West also holds the distinction of being the first cruise ship to visit Juneau most seasons.
"We're usually the first to arrive and bring the first travelers of the season to Alaska and this year will be no exception. We'll be in Juneau April 14 with 54 passengers and we'll be in and out of Juneau all summer until the third week of September," said Johansen. "Each year, our ships and our product becomes increasingly more popular."
Cruise West is not the only small cruise ship company enjoying growth. With four ships that offer soft adventures, Alaska's Glacier Bay Tourism Cruises also is experiencing an annual increase in sales.
"There is definitely an increase in awareness of small ship cruising, and the Internet is a playing a big role," said Brandie Ahlgren, director of marketing communications for Alaska's Glacier Bay Tourism Cruises, a company owned by Goldbelt, Juneau's urban Native corporation.
"Today's travelers are going online and doing their homework," continued Ahlgren from her office in Seattle. "They want to go off the beaten track and experience a destination, not just the ship."
Equipped with kayaks, three of the four Goldbelt boats offer paddle experiences on Alaska's Inside Passage. All of the boats, like most small cruise ships, offer shore walks and provide naturalists on board to explain Southeast's flora and fauna.
"I believe that people who take this type of a trip leave with an understanding of the area they just visited. It's beyond just scratching the surface. It's a way to touch, feel and experience the destination," Ahlgren said. "Our adventure products (the ships that carry kayaks) are extremely popular."
With most of its trips starting or ending in Juneau, Sitka or Ketchikan, Alaska's Glacier Bay Tourism Cruises requires its passengers to stay overnight in at least one of those communities.
"All our itineraries include an overnight stay and shore excursions in Southeast," Ahlgren said. "Our passengers are participating in local tours, shopping in local stores and eating in local restaurants. They want to learn about the communities they visit and the people who live there."
For Meredith Bussen, manager of public relations for Clipper Cruiseline, a company that brings the Yorktown Clipper to Southeast every summer, small ship cruising is an entirely different experience than setting sail on a large ship.
"Our passengers want to experience the environment, and on the big ships the ship is the environment," said Bussen from the company's headquarters in Saint Louis.
"We can go to ports of call that larger cruise ships can't get into and get very close to the wildlife. We also have the freedom to change our itinerary at the drop of the hat if there is a brown bear on the beach or a pod of humpbacks in front of us," she said.
The Yorktown Clipper carries 138 passengers. This year Clipper Cruiseline will bring another ship to Alaska, the Clipper Odyssey, for its first season.
"There is definitely a heightened interest in seeing Alaska in a smaller venue. We sell out our Alaska voyages every year," she added. "Even people who have been to Alaska before on a bigger ship come to us wanting to experience Alaska on a smaller ship."
All of the small cruise ships offer what is known as ecotours, which offer experiences geared toward educating travelers and conserving the natural resources of the visited areas. But Peter Butz of Lindblad Expeditions is wary of using the overused, catch-all phrase.
"We don't really favor the term because it doesn't mean anything," said Butz, vice president of operations for Lindblad, which brings the SeaBird and SeaLion to Southeast each year. "Ecotourism has become a phrase to mean whatever a particular company wants it to mean. I've seen it used in the broadest terms possible and I really shy away from the phrase these days.
"For us, it's about being environmentally responsible and concerned about conservation. No matter where we're traveling, we want to maintain good relationships with the communities we visit and be a good neighbor," he added.
Every year Lindblad surveys its employees for ideas on how to improve the communities the company visits on a regular basis.
"We try to take an active role in community development and do what we can to minimize the impact," Butz said. "Coming into a community with 70 people is a lot different than coming in with a much larger group."