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Tourism: Is Juneau ready for a million cruise passengers?

More than 900,000 passengers are expected in 2005

Posted: Thursday, December 30, 2004

Some summer not so far away, a million cruise passengers might visit Juneau.

More than 900,000 cruise passengers are expected to come to Juneau and Southeast Alaska next year, said Jim Calvin, senior economic analyst of the McDowell Group, which provides research and consulting services.

"We get them all," he said from his Juneau office, noting that all the cruise ships continue to stop in Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway.

Next year, Norwegian Cruise Lines will have one additional ship making Alaska tours, said Andrew Green of the Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska. Last year was a record year for cruises coming to Southeast Alaska and Juneau, he said. And recently, it's been getting better every year.

Kirby Day, director of shore operations for Princess Travel and Tours, said he is cautiously optimistic about the continued growth of the tourism industry. He expects Juneau to hit the million mark in 2007.

Day said that number shouldn't scare anyone. He noted there is increased business that comes into the community and more Juneau tours being offered to accommodate people coming to see Southeast Alaska.

In addition to passengers, cruise ships bring crew members into Juneau to spend money, Calvin said. Tourists spend money on tours and activities in Juneau as well, he said.

The importance of the cruise industry to Juneau's economy "is a foregone conclusion," said Lorene Palmer, president and chief executive officer of the Juneau Visitors and Convention Bureau. Cruise ship passengers and crews spent more than $160 million last season, she said. "That's pretty amazing."

Last summer, cruises to Juneau brought in about 883,000 passengers, including about 12,000 who came on smaller vessels.

For Juneau, the cruise ship industry has been growing for 20 years, Calvin said. "It's been quite steady." But some Southeast Alaska ports have to deal with competition elsewhere in the region, he added.

The Huna Totem Corp. invested $20 million to open a concession at Icy Strait Point last season, attracting 32 visits from cruise ships during the summer. Bob Wysocki, the corporation's chief operating officer, said the stop offers cruise passengers a look at "the real Alaska."

Calvin said, it won't divert people from Juneau, but it could offer competition for ports such as Sitka and Haines.

There is a physical capacity that Juneau can handle at any one time, Palmer said.

"We agree five large cruise ships is all the community can handle at one time," Day said. But in addition to ships getting bigger, he believes more ships will be docked only for a half-day, with another coming to take its place when it leaves.

But the numbers are all the more impressive because Alaska is so far away from everything, Palmer noted.

"It's not an impulse destination," she said. "I sort of compare it to Australia."

For one thing, there is so much of it, she said. People have to plan carefully what they will see and where they will go. Cruises, she added, do a very good job with customer service, allowing passengers some flexibility in their activities while taking care of their planning, transportation and lodging.

Independent travelers, who arrive by ferry or airplane, spend more time in the city and spend money in different ways, usually on food and lodging, she said.

"We want to bring in both the leisure travelers and the business travelers," she said. And she expects moderate growth in independent travel.

Already, during the 2004 tourist season, about 71,000 people came to Juneau and stayed overnight, Palmer said. She added that myths about Alaska being a difficult-to-reach wilderness may keep that number from being higher.

For people living in the Pacific Northwest, Juneau is only a couple of hours away on Alaska Airlines, Palmer said.

"It is not hard for people to have an Alaska experience and stay in Juneau," she said.

Alaska spends $10 million a year promoting the state, and that helps bring people to Juneau. So do the people who may see the city for a few hours on their Alaska cruises. Pictures and stories they take home with them provide even more advertising.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.

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