News-Miner opinion: Greeted by Sen. Lisa Murkowski and a host of dignitaries, the first large cruise ship in 21 months to tie up to Ketchikan’s dock arrived earlier this month, and its docking certainly was cause for jubilation across the state.
And why not? The cruise industry and the passengers it carries to Alaska pump about $3 billion into the state’s economy annually and large cruise ships are an economic mainstay, especially in the Southeast, accounting for about 23,000 jobs. The Alaska Travel Industry Association says an estimated 2.2 million out-of-state visitors traveled to Alaska between May and September 2019, the last full cruise season, with 1.3 million of them traveling by cruise ship.
A Department of Revenue report says about 51% of visitors to Denali in 2016 and 41% of visitors to Fairbanks came from cruise ships. That year, 21% of all cruise visitors to Alaska visited the Interior, with 20% going to Denali and 12% visiting Fairbanks. The same percentage stayed overnight in the areas, with average stays of two nights at Denali and 1.8 nights in Fairbanks.
The Cruise Lines International Association estimates those visits pump more than $300 million into Fairbanks and the Interior. It also estimates the cruise industry accounts for 8,500 jobs in those areas.
While the Southeast was devastated by the loss of much of the 2020 cruise season, it may seem Fairbanks and the Interior are well removed from the cruise industry’s Covid woes, but they are not. Losing those visitors last year, for instance, is estimated to have cost Fairbanks more than $2 million just in bed taxes and that does not take into account business losses and loss of employment.
Royal Caribbean’s 965-foot Serenade of the Seas reached the Ketchikan’s port as part of a test voyage, a phased approach mandated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “conditional sail order” to test Covid-19 protocols.
The vessel was carrying about 800 crew and 300 volunteer passengers, some of them fully vaccinated Royal Caribbean employees. Sitka welcomed its first big ship hauling paying passengers on Wednesday. Juneau is slated to see its first arrival of a big cruise ship today. More large cruise vessels are expected through October.
They are the first since Transport Canada, a federal department within Canada’s government, banned the cruise industry for a year because of pandemic concerns. By April of last year, at least 54 cruise ships reported Covid-19 infections.
Because the federal Jones Act requires foreign-registered ships to stop in a foreign country on voyages between two American cities, being barred from Canadian ports temporarily killed cruising as almost all the large cruise ships that visit Southeast Alaska from the Lower 48 are registered outside the United States.
Congress, at the behest of Alaska’s congressional delegation, voted to temporarily suspend the federal law requiring a foreign port of call. President Joe Biden signed the waiver into law, saying, “Tourism is vital to the state of Alaska — and this law will help revitalize the industry and support Alaskans by allowing large cruise ships to return to the state this summer.”
The pandemic has had a brutal effect on Alaska, especially Southeast Alaska, where it decimating small businesses and knocked a large hole in the state economy.
While this year’s cruise season will be abbreviated, we can only hope next year’s is full and revitalized.
After all, a healthy cruise industry benefits us all.