Cruise line industry says goodbye to Valdez

Posted: Monday, September 22, 2003

VALDEZ - The departure of the Celebrity cruise ship Summit with her 1,950 passengers ended more than the 2003 tourist season here - it ended all major cruise ship visits to this port for the foreseeable future.

"It's pretty much going to wipe us out," said Dave Johnson, owner of Valdez Tours, which provided sightseeing buses for cruise ship passengers.

Tom Bittner, co-owner of Sandra's Gold, a gift shop popular with cruise ship passengers, sings the same song.

"Compared to previous years, we've been on the downhill slide for five years now," said Bittner. "So this is the final nail in the coffin."

Next season only three vessels, each with under 1,000 passengers, are scheduled for seven port calls to Valdez. The largest, Universe Explorer, holds 700 passengers.

In 2004, the Summit will be taking its 1,900 passengers through Icy Straits to the small Southeast village of Hoonah.

Both Holland America and Carnival told Valdez officials the main reason for the pullout was the lack of variety in excursion trips for their clients.

Celebrity said its decision for pulling out this month was simple logistics.

"We are adding Icy Straits and logistically it was a better fit for us than Valdez," said Celebrity spokeswoman Liz Jakeway in Miami.

Sharon Crisp, executive director for the Valdez Convention and Visitors Bureau, contends the issue was capacity.

"If you're the cruise ship people, you are looking for things 1,500 people can do in a four-hour period while you are in port," said Crisp.

Valdez, with a population of 4,000, did not have the variety the cruise lines are looking for, she said.

"They are looking for something different - something unique - for each different port they stop in," Crisp said.

Hoonah has a population of roughly 500.

"Hoonah's really going after it," said Crisp. "It sounds like Hoonah is giving them a different flavor."

Though the Summit had only eight port calls in Valdez for the 2003 season, the Valdez Community and Economic Development Department estimates her passengers had a retail impact of $374,000 for the seaport.

For a decade, cruise ship traffic into Valdez was heavy. Visitors from around the world disembarked to see the community's ring of glaciers, raft the turbulent Lowe River or tour the Alyeska Pipeline Terminal.

At the peak in 1995, Valdez welcomed more than 70 cruise ships.

Then the slide began - 1996 saw 67 cruise ship visits; 1997 saw 57 visits. Visits were up in 1998, with 68, but dropped again in 1999 to 62. By 2000, only cruise ships docked only 45 times, and in 2001, there were 47 stops.

Holland America said it would not return after August 2001. Carnival cruises abandoned town the following year.

The city of Valdez hired Anchorage-based Northern Economics to study what had gone wrong and what could be done to turn things around.

The report cited a failure to offer cruise ship companies a sufficient variety of shore excursions and retail goods for passengers.

The Northern Economics report also said one of the main attractions for cruise ship passengers was the pipeline terminal tour, which was halted soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Finally, the report also said that while Valdez had been the epicenter essentially for both the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake and the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the community has failed to develop natural history and wildlife viewing attractions for visitors.

"We have nothing unique to offer them," said Mayor Bert Cottle. "They don't make enough money for the number of shore excursions we do have. It's a money game."

Crisp said the convention and visitors bureau is scaling back and focusing on the independent traveler and in-state traffic. One full-time staff position at the bureau has been eliminated.

Valdez has other economic challenges in addition to Celebrity's decision to change ports.

Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. is planning another round of layoffs as pump stations 12 and 11 in the Valdez area become more automated. Seahawk Seafoods processing plant remained closed during the 2003 fishing season because of low salmon prices, and a record 20 million pinks in Prince William Sound this summer caused prices to nose-dive.

If the number of bars are an indicator of the health of any Alaska fishing port, Valdez is showing signs of ill health there, too. The landmark Sugarloaf Bar closed in 2001. The long-standing Glacier Bar, dating back more than 50 years ago to Old Town Valdez, locked its doors earlier this month.

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