Towns feel loss of sternwheeler's visits

Empress of the North was an important revenue source to some small communities

Posted: Monday, June 04, 2007

Olga Norris has seen a lot of ups and downs in the 37 years she has been selling jewelry and fine housewares at the Norris Gift Shop on Wrangell's Main Street, but this summer looked promising.

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The Empress of the North, the only cruise ship of its size to visit this island community of about 1,900 people, was changing its schedule.

Instead of arriving at dinner time as it did last year, the sternwheeler planned to tie up at the dock for several hours at midday, disgorging its nearly 300 passengers and crew at an ideal shopping hour.

But Norris' hopes for a steady influx of customers were dashed when the 360-foot sternwheeler slammed into a rock outside Juneau May 14 and had to be laid up a month and a half or more for repairs.

"Now all we're getting is ferry traffic, people coming in from fishing and some bear hunters, and they're pretty few and far between," Norris said.

The incident points out the difficulties some communities have when it comes to tapping into the estimated $650 million a year that cruise ship passengers spend in Alaska.

The grounding of the Empress of the North caused barely a ripple in Juneau. Alaska's capital, after all, has thousands of passengers from much larger cruise ships shuffling through its trinket shops daily.

But smaller ports off the beaten path, like Wrangell and nearby Petersburg, felt the loss acutely. The towns draw 1 percent or less of the overall cruise business in Alaska compared to Juneau's 96 percent, according to state statistics.

"They (the Empress of the North) are our bread and butter in the summer," said Fran Jones, owner of Seaport Gallery and Gifts in Petersburg. "When we found out they were going to be out of commission, you could hear the groans and 'Oh nos' all through the retail businesses."

Many small communities want to avoid a large influx of passengers. Residents of Sitka, which draws about a quarter of all cruise visits statewide, have been arguing for years over whether to build a cruise ship dock or continue to keep the ships at arm's length by having them anchor offshore.

But Wrangell, which has been struggling to recoup from a downturn in the timber industry, did spend more than $250,000 to add extra mooring space to the town dock several years ago, thus allowing the Norwegian Wind and later the Norwegian Sun, each with about 2,000 passengers, to tie up weekly.

Residents assured of a long-term commitment were shocked when the company dropped the town from its itinerary in 2006 citing financial reasons. No large ships have been in since, said Marie Oboczky who invested about $30,000 in expanding her tour business, Rainwalker Expeditions, to accommodate the short-lived influx.

"We are courting the cruise ship business, at manageable levels for a small town, but we haven't been successful. So anything we get, like the Empress, is valuable to us," Oboczky said.

The Empress of the North would have made 20 of a total of 35 cruise visits to the town this summer. The other ship to visit Wrangell, the Contessa, is owned by the same company and carries only 48 passengers.

Meanwhile, the Empress of the North would have made 20 out of 122 total cruise visits planned for Petersburg.

Ann Marie Ricard, a spokeswoman for the operator, Majestic America Line, said the type of passengers who travel on the smaller ships tend to enjoy the smaller communities because they are not part of the typical cruise ship itinerary.

"And both (communities) are very rich in history and native culture," said Ricard. "It's a great opportunity to see history up close and personal."

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