Industry consultant: Cruise lines again ‘bullish’ on Alaska

Cruise industry consultant Andy Nelson says of Disney Cruise Lines, “If they’re coming to Sitka, you’re doing it right.” (Robert Woolsey/KCAW)

Cruise industry consultant Andy Nelson says of Disney Cruise Lines, “If they’re coming to Sitka, you’re doing it right.” (Robert Woolsey/KCAW)

Years of steady declines in cruise ship traffic to Sitka should be coming to an end — eventually.

Independent cruise industry consultant Andy Nelson told the Sitka Chamber of Commerce this week that because cruise itineraries are planned years in advance, there was nothing to be done about the expected drop in visitor numbers this summer. But after that, things were looking more “bullish.”

Nelson has been hired by Chris McGraw, owner of the Old Sitka Dock, to raise awareness among the cruise lines of the new deepwater facility in Sitka. McGraw’s father, Chuck, was also in the audience.

In his remarks, Nelson told the chamber that there was nothing Sitka could have done to reverse the decline in cruise tourism, which was aggravated by several factors — primarily the US economic recession beginning in 2008.

Sitka had impact of ships leaving, even before the US economy changed. And I just wanted to back up a little bit, because talking with Chuck and Chris, it’s been enlightening for me because I think some people feel that Sitka made a mistake. What did we do wrong that the ships left? And I’m not sure that Sitka did (make a mistake). When 9-11 happened it changed the marketplace in Alaska. Because of the impression that people in the Lower 48 were becoming more resistant to flying — at least right after 9-11 — and they would rather leave from a US port, ships moved from Vancouver to Seattle as far as homeporting. And so for the ships that went to Seattle, not only is the voyage a little bit longer — remember they have to do it twice — it adds a bit of time, and that’s all time that they can’t spend in the ports in Alaska. In addition to that, those ships have to make a Canadian port call, to follow the rules of shipping, which is the Jones Act, where they have to call on a foreign port. So for all of those ships, not only is the voyage longer, but they all had to call in Victoria as well, which took additional time. So the reality is that as that market developed in Seattle, with those itineraries they could only get in at the most three port calls in Alaska, Victoria, and get back to Seattle. So the byproduct of that is that Sitka lost port calls, Haines lost port calls, and some others did as well. And I’m not sure Sitka could have headed that off.

Nelson worked for Royal Caribbean for 25 years before becoming an independent consultant. He offered an insider’s perspective into why things were looking up for Sitka in the not too distant future. Disney, Norwegian, and Carnival cruise lines were all making single port calls in Sitka this summer, to assess passenger reaction to the community.

Nelson himself visited for the first time last October for the Alaska Travel Industry Association meeting. He said Sitka has a way of making a good first impression.

I think Sitka’s in a great position for new itineraries that are departing out of Vancouver. The Vancouver itineraries have time to stop in Sitka, and I think that Vancouver is going to host more ships in the future. In contrast to some other ports — and I’m not just talking about Alaska — Sitka offers a real authentic feel to it. It feels like a functioning village, city, whatever you want to call it. It’s very pleasant. If the experience I had in the fall is anything like the experience guests have in the summer, they couldn’t help but like it. It’s a great place. A lot of natural beauty, really strong history — all things that help the itinerary and help the marketing. You’ve got good shore excursion opportunities. One addition, and certainly I’m biased, is you’ve got a deepwater dock now. And that’s a huge benefit to Sitka. Because as Chris said there are cruise lines that won’t come to Sitka unless there’s a dock. Some will, some won’t. They’re going to make their own decision on that. Our message as we go out to the cruise lines — and yes, we’re hoping that they use the dock — but the message is, Come to Sitka. And my belief is that most of the new lines that come to Sitka are going to use the new dock.

Old Sitka Dock owner Chris McGraw prefaced Nelson’s remarks at the Chamber of Commerce. He said that the dock received 23 ship visits last year, and expected 26 ship visits this year, with the Seven Seas Navigator and Regatta comprising the bulk of those visits.

The first cruise ship call of the 2014 season in Sitka is the Westerdam, on May 7.

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