Alaska’s tourism industry should be a bright spot in 2016 as other sectors of the state’s economy face uphill battles.
The final tally of cruise passengers, which often make up more than half of all visitors to the state, is expected to be up about 2 percent over what was a strong 2015, according to Cruise Lines International Association Alaska President John Binkley.
“We anticipate exceeding the million-passenger mark in our cruise Alaska pipeline,” in 2016, Binkley said. “Our throughput is increasing.”
The bump in cruise visitors is primarily due to larger ships being committed to Alaska and not increased sailings, he said.
Holland America Line is swapping out the 1,900-passenger Oosterdam with the 2,100-passenger Nievw Amsterdam this summer. Royal Caribbean will employ the more than 1,000-foot Explorer of the Seas, with capacity for about 3,100 passengers, in Alaska waters to replace 2,100-passenger Jewel of the Seas; and Princess Cruises will call on its Crown and Ruby Princess ships for Alaska, each with staterooms for nearly 3,100 passengers.
Binkley said cruise customers are driving the industry shift to larger vessels because they provide more waterside amenities that cruisers want. He added that the ships’ capacities are based on two passengers per stateroom, but the rooms often have bed space for three or four individuals, meaning the actual number of travelers could exceed expectations.
“We’re seeing much more multi-generational family travel in cruising to Alaska — grandparents bring grandkids, that sort of thing — so you have more than 100 percent, usually 104, 105, 106 percent of lower berth capacity is what the ships actually bring,” Binkley said.
Nearly all cruise sailings to Alaska waters originate in Seattle and Vancouver and traverse the Inside Passage, with stops in Ketchikan, Juneau and other Southeast communities. About a third of the ships then continue across the Gulf of Alaska to the Southcentral ports of Whittier, Seward, Homer and Anchorage.
Statewide, Alaska saw a record numbers of visitors last year, with more than 1.7 million people traveling to the state in the summer of 2015, according to the state Commerce Department.
Additionally, each visitor spends an average of about $940 per person once they get to Alaska, according to Commerce estimates.
Travel Juneau CEO Liz Perry said there was also a significant bump in air traffic into Juneau last year as Delta Air Lines increased its presence in the market. However, she said Delta was not pulling traditional business from Alaska Airlines, which also had a 3.5 percent increase in passengers to Juneau last year.
The upward trend in air travel, driven by a strong Lower 48 economy and lower fuel prices translating to lower airfares, is expected to continue.
“We’re enjoying about 100,000 independent travelers this (summer) season, too,” Perry said.
Independent travelers typically make up about 10 percent of all visitors to Juneau, according to Perry.
Juneau’s cruise season will kick off April 30 this year, a couple days earlier than usual, with the arrival of the Crystal Cruises Crystal Serenity.
Visit Anchorage CEO Julie Saupe said the continued healthy number of cruisers in Southeast should translate to a strong and stable number of cruise passengers in Southcentral as well. Last year, roughly 330,000 cruise passengers visited Southcentral ports, which was an 8 percent increase from 2014. Saupe said port schedules are about the same as last year, but a slight increase in passengers could come from larger ships making the port calls.
Increased passenger traffic through Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport last year is expected to hold as well, she noted.Almost exactly 1 million passengers passed through the Anchorage airport during the peak summer months of June, July and August last year, a nearly 8 percent increase over 2014.