Cruise boom brings more business to Sitka but strains some local attractions

By October 15, 2019 Business, Southeast, Tourism
A Holland America cruise ship at the Halibut Point Marine Services dock in Sitka in 2016.

A Holland America cruise ship at the Halibut Point Marine Services dock in Sitka in 2016. (Photo courtesy Chris McGraw)

It’s been a big year for cruise ship tourism in Sitka. The town saw a huge increase in passenger visits, and in May it hosted the largest cruise ship currently operating in Alaska waters.

While some in the tourist industry welcome the extra business, the large crowds did create challenges for some local attractions.

These days, the crew at Halibut Point Marine Services is busy running the travel lift, hauling boats into the yard for repairs or storage. But from May through September, they specialize in cruise ships, handling a vast majority of the vessels that dock in Sitka. That means owner Chris McGraw got a firsthand look at this summer’s passenger boom.

“You know I didn’t have two days off in a row all summer,” McGraw said. “Whereas previously we’d go two, three days without a ship.”

In total, more than 210,000 cruise ship passengers disembarked in Sitka this summer, most of them at Halibut Point. That’s up more than 40% from 2018. McGraw said he’s happy for the extra work.

“It helps get employees cause you’re able to offer employees full 40 hour or even 50 hour weeks,” he said. “The increased passenger capacity helps the sustainability of employment.”

He admits there were some high adrenaline moments, like watching the 1,100-foot Ovation of the Seas, the largest cruise ship operating in Alaska, come in to dock. But McGraw said that visit went off without a hitch, as did the rest of the season.

Laurie Booyse, the director of Visit Sitka, credits the smooth sailing to the even spacing of ship visits.

“Instead of having two or three big ships on the same day, they were spread out across the course of each week,” Booyse said. “So that there were fewer visitors in town each day but there were more visitors overall.”

But there were still many days with multiple ships and thousands of passengers in town, which stretched the capacity of some local tourist attractions.

At Sitka National Historical Park, Education Manager Jess Perkins said they sometimes got swamped by multiple tour groups at once.

“We’d get a lot, a lot of people all at the same time, showing up and wanting to see all the same things,” she said.

She said the crowds combined with the quick turnaround times made it harder to promote a meaningful experience.

“That was a challenge as far as being able to connect with the visitors and make sure that they understood the significance of the park and why we have a park here,” she added.

The park wasn’t the only place affected by the crush of visitors. Jennifer Cross, executive director at the Alaska Raptor Center, wrote in an email that the facility was at times “pushed to its limits.” She added that the warm, dry summer could have also been a factor in driving up visitor numbers. Either way, they plan to hire more tour guides for next summer.

The last cruise ship of the season departed Sitka in late September. But Chris McGraw at Halibut Point Marine is already preparing for next season. The big project? Upgrade the dock so it can host two large ships at once. He said that sort of expansion is necessary if Sitka wants to compete with other towns in Southeast.

“That’s part of the reason why we’re expanding our facility so we can be out there with the rest of the communities and say that we have the capacity to welcome you to Sitka,” McGraw said.

According to the preliminary cruise ship schedule, 2020 is shaping up to be another busy season.

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