Dock owner: Sitka should prepare for a deluge of cruise passengers in 2022

Royal Caribbean International’s Ovation of the Seas, a quantum-class cruise ship, in Skagway’s port. (Claire Stremple/KHNS)

The cruise industry in Southeast Alaska remains frustrated by Canada’s decision to close its ports to large ships for the year, effectively prohibiting anything close to a typical visitor season in 2021. But in 2022, the cruise rebound in ports like Sitka could be staggering.

At a presentation to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 17, industry representatives outlined some of the barriers to cruising this year — and warned about a possible record surge in 2022.

Mike Tibbles is with the Cruise Lines International Association in Juneau. CLIA represents 17 of the cruise lines that sail in Southeast, from the biggest players in the market to some of the small ships.

Canada’s announcement in early February that it would not open its ports to ships with more than 100 passengers for another year amounted to putting a tourniquet on Alaskan cruising. But Tibbles thinks Canada’s no-sail order could be revised under the right circumstances.

“I think we were a little surprised that it went all the way out to February of ‘22,” he said. “But we have been continuing to communicate with Canadian officials. They’ve indicated that they’re focused on the health aspect, and that if conditions improve, an interim order is not as tough as a regulation. So that date could potentially be revisited.”

But it’s not just a matter of Canada rescinding its order. Tibbles explained that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control had replaced its own no-sail order with a framework that allows cruising under rigorous safety guidelines that cover everything from single-use berths for crew members and lavatories to test sailings and safety plans for port communities.

Tibbles said putting a cruise season together under those terms — on short notice — would be an extraordinary challenge.

“We have a really high hurdle here,” he said. “It’s going to be extremely difficult to align these things — getting the guidance from the CDC and meeting those requirements, finding some solution to the announcement from Canada, and then getting all the plans in place with the local communities before sailing.”

Even if there were movement from Alaska’s congressional delegation for a workaround for the Passenger Vessel Services Act — the law which requires all foreign-flagged ships to stop in a foreign port while on their Alaskan itineraries — Tibble said, “We have an uphill fight.”

There could be another kind of fight in 2022, though, if the COVID pandemic is brought under control: A struggle for Southeast communities to keep their heads above water under a deluge of cruise visitors.

Chris McGraw runs what was formerly known as “Old Sitka Dock.” It’s been rebranded as the “Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal.” He said that Royal Caribbean was adding three ships to its Southeast Alaska itinerary.

“Two of those ships will be their Quantum-class ships,” McGraw said, “which have capacities in excess of 4,000 passengers.”

That could push Sitka’s cruise visitor count in 2022 to over 400,000, a record for the community. McGraw is investing in a new passenger terminal at his facility, expanding its capacity from just over 2,000 people to something around 9,000. He’s upgraded his docks to accommodate two of the 1,100-foot Quantum-class ships.

Halibut Point Marine’s expansion plans include upgrading its passenger terminal to accommodate 9,000 passengers. Owner Chris McGraw wants the rest of Sitka to be prepared for the record volumes. (HPM image)

He wants the rest of Sitka to be ready.

“Looking forward to 2022, I think Sitka really needs to start planning to adequately accommodate from both a local perspective and a visitor perspective, these passenger volumes,” said McGraw. “Planning for Centennial Hall needs to be developed, the large shuttle traffic.”

McGraw said that there could be over 40 days in the summer of 2022 with over 5,000 cruise passengers in town, which would mean running 25 shuttles. He noted that Sitka’s downtown Lincoln Street corridor feels crowded when there are only 1,500 passengers in town.

“And we’re going to have days when we have 8,000 passengers,” he warned, “and the sidewalks, the traffic — that all needs to be improved in my opinion.”

He recommended that anybody in the industry begin thinking about the issues stemming from such large increases in volume, and that local government should begin planning.

“Everyone should be able to enjoy themselves and live in Sitka without feeling like we’re being overrun with visitors,” he said.

Read next