Skagway, Alaska.  
Holland America’s Zuiderdam is in the background.
Photo © Aaron Saunders

A few days ago, we wrote extensively about some of the issues facing the future of West Coast cruises, many of which center around the State of Alaska’s 2006 decision to impose one of the heftiest passenger taxes on the world upon cruise ship passengers visiting the state.  Since 2008, the number of ships sailing north has dropped off dramatically – so much so that 2011 will see capacity fall to pre-2004 levels. 

Things may be looking up, however.  Alaska State Governor Sean Parnell turned up at this year’s annual Seatrade Cruise Shipping Miami conference – and got an earful from many industry execs, including Holland America Line CEO Stein Kruse who stated the line can – and will – move ships to more profitable runs in destinations that actively value its business.

Perhaps fortunately for Alaskans, Parnell seems to be a smart man.  He quickly made efforts to court the cruise lines, offering to reduce the current $46-per-passenger head tax by 25% in exchange for a lawsuit against the state by the lines being revoked.  No word yet on if the deal has been accepted.

However, this last-minute truce may be too little, too late.  Cunard, Royal Caribbean and Princess have all announced their largest-ever European deployments for 2011 in the past week.  Carnival also stands poised to re-enter Europe in 2011 after a three-year hiatus.  Many lines are also finding success in year-round Caribbean cruising, as well as trips to more esoteric destinations like Iceland or the North Cape.  MSC Cruises is also betting heavily on an extended Canada & New England run later this year – the largest in the line’s history.

In short – if the Governor’s offer is accepted, it may be years before lines return to full capacity in Alaska, if they do at all.  This year will see a 17% reduction in cruise passenger traffic alone, and next year will see even further cutbacks – Disney‘s move to position Disney Wonder in Alaska next summer is made somewhat redundant with Princess’s announcement that it will pull another ship from the state in 2011. 

Wrangell, Alaska’s Petroglyph Beach  –
No cruise passengers will come here this year.
Photo © Aaron Saunders

Another factor may be at play here, and that is attitude.  When the head tax passed in 2006, many Alaskans were strongly supportive of it.  Some are even downright resentful of the ships and their passengers.  NCL used to call at Wrangell, Alaska, but dropped the town as a destination in 2006.  Much controversy surrounds this decision, as well as that of other lines to not call here.  Cruise lines say the town was being combative and refusing to put in the necessary infrastructure to cope with 2,000 plus passengers disembarking at once.  Locals say they shouldn’t have to change the town to meet the needs of the lines.

Regardless of where the truth lies, in 2009, their cruise ship visitors stood at 4,000.  This year, that number drops to zero.

After Wrangell, Haines and Whittier stand to loose the most this year – the number of cruise passengers scheduled to visit both towns will drop by 67 and 65 percent respectively.  

What is interesting in all of this is that many ports and towns stumble over themselves in an effort to court cruise ship passengers and ensure they have an enjoyable time.  In St. John, New Brunswick,  passengers are greeted to a bagpiper’s farewell as their ship leaves the pier.  In Alesund, Norway, a fireboat escort leads passengers out to the North Sea to the tunes of Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again.

On one particularly memorable Alaska cruise, a group of locals in Juneau gathered at the cruise pier to give us all ‘the finger’ as our ship backed into the channel.  

That action shouldn’t be taken as indicative – the vast majority of the locals were overwhelmingly kind – but it does point to a common complaint: that passengers get off the ship and head straight for Diamonds International, and then to the discount store by the pier to get themselves a plastic moose which can be made to defecate by squeezing his sides.  Neither of these (thankfully!) exist anywhere in Europe, or even on most Eastern seaboard ports.  In the end, what might anger the average Alaskan is that many passengers to the state step off the ship and back on without ever having really seen it.

Overall, it seems the head-tax was the issue that broke the camel’s back, but the larger issues have been simmering for years.  Here’s to hoping the State – and the cruise industry – can work together to get Alaska back on track.


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