Assuming the pandemic steers a better course next spring, Sitka is bracing for a record cruise ship season in 2022, with over 400,000 passengers expected to visit the community.
This number is more than twice as many as arrived in 2019, the last full season, and about 100,000 more than the previous record.
The reason for the big jump is twofold: More large ships are coming to the Alaska market, and Sitka now has a place to put them.
Ten years ago, a private cruise ship dock was a bit of a pipe dream. Sitka had two public lightering docks and a three-decade old system of bringing cruise passengers to town aboard the ships’ own tenders.
Chris McGraw, owner of the new Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal, had a boatyard with his family on land that fronted deep water. Why not build a cruise dock?
“We built the dock in 2011 and spent the first year without a single customer,” McGraw said. “The second year, we were able to attract one of the very small lines and had less than 15 dockings. And that grew very slowly over the next three years. And the whole time the larger ships were still tendering and you see them anchor out downtown, and we have a nice empty dock.”
It’s not empty anymore. Last week, two Panamax-class cruise ships, the Serenade of the Seas and the Nieuw Amsterdam, towered over McGraw’s dock like office buildings in New York City.
It wasn’t until 2015, after three years of knocking on doors and attending cruise conferences, that McGraw got the first Holland America ship to tie up at his dock. And that was the proof of concept he needed to transform it into a 40,000 square-foot, timber-framed cruise facility.
“And once they started coming, you know, the rest of the various cruise lines that called in Sitka I think saw that, ‘Oh, it works!’ And really the apprehension was, since we’re located five miles out of downtown, that the passengers may view that negatively,” McGraw explained. “And we’ve gotten very little negative feedback for the passengers having to get on a shuttle.”
McGraw won’t say how much he’s invested in the terminal itself. He halted construction last year during the pandemic but resumed when legislation passed allowing cruising in the second half of the summer. A retail store is open, but the taproom and restaurant remain under construction. Passengers have been moving easily to and from the downtown shuttle buses, but cruise ships have not been running at full capacity.
Next year, the system could be put to the test, with over 400,000 passengers projected to arrive in Sitka, many aboard neo-Panamax class ships like Ovation of the Seas, which holds 4,900 paying customers. In 2018 Sitka had only 158,000 cruise passengers, and a little more than 200,000 in 2019. McGraw’s cruise terminal is helping drive that increase, but he’s attuned to the interests of the community — and to Royal Caribbean, which bought a minority interest in the dock itself.
“My hope is that with our downtown as unique as it is and as walkable that it is, that it just keeps that kind of small town character,” McGraw said. “Even the Royal Caribbean executives that we’ve had here on a number of occasions, that’s the one comment they make is, you know, ‘This feels like authentic Alaska.'”
McGraw says having the dock outside of downtown might even help with that.
“We can only bus so many people per hour into town,” he said. “If you had two berths, right downtown, then you could have instantly 6,000 people walking around.”
Keeping those 6,000 people busy doing something other than overcrowding Sitka’s downtown district is critical to the vision of the terminal. McGraw’s tour subsidiary, Adventure Sitka, has struck a deal with Shee Atika, Inc, Sitka’s urban Native corporation, to build an adventure park with zip lines and trails on 17 acres of leased land adjacent to the terminal.
At the other end of the road system, Adventure Sitka plans to pick up passengers by boat in Silver Bay and take them to the far end of the bay for kayak tours, based out of an old hunting cabin McGraw’s family has owned for years.
Family is an important aspect of the business. The McGraws have been in construction for decades in Sitka, thinking big and building big.
When the 964-foot Serenade of the Seas and the 936-foot Nieuw Amsterdam pulled into port last week, there wasn’t a crew of beefy longshormen to meet them. McGraw, his 12-year old son and his dad tied up the ships, along with an employee from their boatyard.
“It only takes about 45 minutes to tie up a ship, and 20 minutes to untie a ship,” McGraw said. “So, you know, hiring full time staff just for an hour and a half a day is not really practical. And with how difficult it is to find help right now, it works where we just do it.”
McGraw says he’s going to spend the winter working on organization for the terminal so each one of those 400,000 passengers next summer can disembark and find their shuttles or tours without needing to ask anyone.