Southeast cruise line plans 2012 expansion

Sitka’s home-grown cruise company has wrapped up its first season. And it’s already planning to expand, with sailings to southern Southeast starting next year. Several other small lines also plan to increase capacity in 2012.

Allen Marine has offered whale-watching and other day tours for years. They’ve been popular with independent and cruise-ship tourists stopping in the company’s hometown of Sitka, as well as ports in Ketchikan and Juneau.

Last year, the company announced plans to expand into the small cruise market with a new brand, Alaskan Dream. It readied the 78-passenger Admiralty Dream for week-long roundtrips based out of Sitka.

Vice President Michael Wein says the season started slow.

“By the time we got everything up and running as far as marketing, our May had some very light loads. But every consecutive month we’ve had an increase in bookings and we’re sailing the month of August with very impressive loads,” he says.

A second ship, the 46-passenger Alaskan Dream, was brought into service when needed.

The company is expanding its itineraries in hopes of filling both ships next season. It will add one-way cruises between Juneau and Sitka. And it will begin sailing to Ketchikan.

“We’ll be offering two departure dates of an 11-day cruise that goes from Sitka to Ketchikan. And that’s a complete Southeast Explorer itinerary which has Glacier Bay, Skagway, Haines, Juneau, Petersburg, Wrangell, and of course Hobart Bay and Tracy Arm.”

Alaskan Dream offers the only cruises stopping in Hobart Bay, on the mainland between Juneau and Petersburg. The site, owned by Juneau Native corporation Goldbelt, offers kayaking, ATVs and small, powered inflatable boats.

The Sitka-based company is one of several offering up-close, small-ship voyages in Southeast Alaska. Wein says the difference is in the staff and approach.

“We’ve used the philosophy, which we’re very proud of, is ‘True Alaska with True Alaskans.’ The program we offer shows a complete history of Alaska and what life is like up here in Alaska 12 months out of the year versus just a couple months out of the year,” he says.

Alaskan Dream Cruises is among several small-ship companies expanding Inside Passage sailings next summer. InnerSea Discoveries, American Safari and American Cruise Lines will also increase offerings.

They’re, in part, filling a gap left when small-ship pioneer Cruise West went out of business about a year ago

“I think the cruise industry and the small-ship cruise industry in Southeast is really starting to see a rejuvenation of sorts,” says Hunter McIntosh, chief operating officer of The Boat Company, which sails between Sitka and Juneau.

McIntosh says its two boats, which carry up to a total of 44 passengers, ran at 90 percent occupancy this year. He calls that “phenomenal.”

“I think what’s happening is people are realizing that while our economy is down, and while things are difficult, people still want to take vacations. They still want to be able to relax and they still want to be able to enjoy small ship cruising,” he says.

The nonprofit company does not plan to add vessels or itineraries next season. But McIntosh says it will increase the number of guest-hosted tours. This season saw environmental activist and TV documentary producer Philippe Cousteau.

“We’d like to do more of those types of trips with Robert Glenn Ketchum, who is an Ansel Adams-award-winning photographer, and with one of our business partners, Orvis, bringing fly-fishing guides up. That is the sort of direction that we’re taking,” he says.

Both lines target the upper end of the cruise market. Alaskan Dream charges $1,500 to $7,000 per passenger, depending on trip length and cabin size. The Boat Company fares run up to $10,000.

Read or hear: Small cruise lines send more ships to Alaska