Late cruise season both a relief and headache for Sitka’s port facilities

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)

A bill allowing cruise ships to sail to Alaska later this summer is both a welcome surprise and unexpected challenge for the people who run Sitka’s port.

The problem? The numbers of ships and passengers coming in July remain big question marks, and the summer season is already underway.

It was only just a short while ago — May 4 — that Sen. Dan Sullivan was in Sitka bearing bad news: the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act had failed to win unanimous consent in the United States Senate, and there was no telling when it might return for another vote.

Giving a break to foreign-flagged cruise companies has never been an especially popular idea in Washington, D.C.

“I think your point about not having a lot of friends is a pretty good description of what goes on in Congress,” Sullivan said in an interview with Sitka media during his visit.

What may have changed in the meantime is that Sullivan, his senate colleague Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young somehow succeeded in making the bill more about helping Alaskans than helping cruise lines, and it won passage. President Biden signed the bill yesterday, which means ships will be able to sail directly between Seattle and Alaska without an interim stop in Canada to comply with the 135-year old Passenger Vessel Services Act.

The question is, now what?

“Until I see the bow of the ship, I don’t know,” said Fred Reeder.

Fred Reeder is the Sitka port manager for the Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a news release on May 21 announcing the return of Princess, Carnival and Holland America cruise lines to the Alaska market beginning near the end of July.

Although Reeder may be just a little bit skeptical that the cruise lines will be able to sell berths and staff their huge ships in less than two month’s time, he doesn’t see any reason not to share Gov. Dunleavy’s outlook.

“I guess I’m as optimistic as the governor,” said Reeder. “If he says we’re going to have cruise ships, it gives me some hope that we might have some.”

Reeder’s staff for the summer is already in place. In Sitka, it’s him and one other person in the office along with two security guards. That’s how many he needs to manage the smaller ships calling in Sitka — those with fewer than 200 passengers — that were never affected by Canada’s port closures. In a non-pandemic year, his staff might be two or three times as large, to transport crew members boarding or leaving ships in Sitka. But he doesn’t see the need this year.

“I think once they get their crew on board and they’ve all been tested, I would assume that they’re not going to do a lot of switching of crew around,” he said.

Reeder’s flexibility isn’t shared by the Sitka Cruise Terminal, Sitka’s privately-owned cruise ship dock. Owner Chris McGraw launched a major expansion of his facility a couple of years ago but slowed work down when 2021 looked like it was going to be another summer without ships.

The passage of the bill has caused him to step up the pace.

“We’re not quite done yet, but now we’re going to make sure and put the manpower on it and have everything wrapped up here in the next few weeks,” McGraw said.

McGraw says cruise lines began booking passengers shortly after the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act passed both houses of Congress, and he’s confident Sitka will see ships this summer. What he’s not so confident about is what those passengers will see when they land at his terminal. The mall-like structure will be done, but all the vendors and attractions won’t be there yet.

“As far as our development complex out here, a lot of the spaces won’t be finished on the inside,” McGraw said. “The restaurant won’t be open, so passengers will see an empty space. And they’ll realize that it’s probably because of (delays due to) COVID.”

McGraw says industry officials have been unable to tell him how many guests they’ll be bringing to his port. Nevertheless, he’ll be trying to increase his staff to accommodate them — a hiring process that normally takes place in the winter.

Despite the challenges, shore agent Fred Reeder is upbeat that cruise ships appear likely to make a comeback in Sitka this summer. It’s a sign that “we’re getting through all this,” and he likens it to the feeling of getting vaccinated: “A burden was lifted that I didn’t know I had.”

And, as a former mayor and school board president, Reeder is excited to share his town.

“Seeing visitors, people enjoying what we see every day, is a good thing,” he said.

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