Summer is winding down, but cruise ship season is still on for port communities throughout Alaska. All in all, these ships will bring 1.3 million passengers to the state. The small southeast town of Wrangell is just getting a sliver of that. Local tour operators say that’s not a bad thing.
Lee Kramer and his wife Deborah came all the way from Washington, D.C., for their Alaska cruise vacation. Today they arrived in Wrangell on the Azamara Quest, which holds fewer than 1,000 passengers.
“We knew that Wrangell’s a very small town, so this is pretty much meeting our expectations,” Lee Kramer said.
They went on a tour to the Anan Bear Observatory. Wrangell markets itself more for its off island excursions than the town itself.
But many tourists seem genuinely interested in the small town and those that live here. The Kramers’ friend, Bob McNalley from Florida, compared Wrangell to Ketchikan, where the ship had docked yesterday.
“Ketchikan is way too commercial. This is much more quaint and what we really wanted to see in Alaska,” he said.
The three tourists were impressed that their tour guide, Drew Larabee, lives in Wrangell year-round working as the shop teacher. They even asked where the high school was so they could see where their guide works in the offseason.
“Well I think that what’s going to happen is, when people find out about this sleepy little city, things are going to change. And I’ll tell you what, Drew the shop teacher is going to have a lot of opportunities to take people to see the bears,” McNalley said.
Cruise ship tourism is growing in Wrangell, but it is still one of the smallest ports in Southeast, along with Petersburg. Wrangell’s season should wrap with 21,000 passengers total. Which is nothing compared to Juneau’s million, or even the quarter of a million people who will visit the tiny village of Hoonah.
But Hoonah is proof that the size of the community doesn’t matter nearly as much as the will and the investment to welcome the industry.
Which Wrangell doesn’t have. And it’s not sorry.
The city says attracting more cruise ships is not a priority. The city does spend money — bed tax money — marketing its tourist attractions. But that money’s meant to target those independent travelers looking to spend the night in town, not more cruise ships. While the average cruise ship passenger spends $150 in town, all other travelers spend more than twice that when they visit.
But still, local tour operators have asked the city to upgrade downtown to better suit cruise passengers.
Jim Leslie runs Alaska Waters with his daughter. He gives tours and has two shops in town.
On his wish list of improvements, he’d like to see more summer floats to dock tour boats. Also a visitor’s center, for cover from the rain.
“Move the container companies out of downtown Wrangell, and develop a green belt along the waterfront here and make more room for retail sales and that sort of thing,” Leslie said.
He thinks the barge companies are taking up prime real estate. But he’s not asking for the dock to be expanded. He’s just reimagining what downtown could look like. He says one ship a day is all the town needs. And certainly no megaships.
Sylvia Ettefagh agrees. She runs the tour company Alaska Vistas.
“Do we need anything (like) in Ketchikan, Skagway, Icy Strait? No, we don’t,” she said.
She says that level of tourists would be pandemonium for the town.
“I think the community of Wrangell has told us pretty much that that’s not who they want to be,” Ettefagh said. “This is an older, more established community with year-round residents, that certainly is friendly, but you don’t want them hiding from tourists.”
She says to understand what the town really wants, and how much it wants to grow, it’s good to know what it does not want.
That said, there’s more coming. The town is expected to bring in about 500 more passengers next season.