ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A growing consumer demand for Alaska cruises has put the state back in the million-passenger club as it rebounds after a leaner stretch. And next year is expected to be even better with larger capacity ships added to the Far North lineup.
The millionth passenger was recently counted as the Alaska cruise industry's season was nearing its end. Final passenger totals are expected to be slightly higher.
"Alaska's very popular," Holland America Line spokesman Erik Elvejord said Friday. "We've been getting a lot of interest in it."
Overall visitor numbers also are growing, with a record of more than 2 million travelers in the state last year. This summer's season is projected to be "just as positive" and expected to continue next year as well, according to Sarah Leonard, president of the Alaska Travel Industry Association.
"With continued interest by cruise companies including Alaska itineraries and bringing bigger ships to Alaska ports, we expect the growth to continue next summer," Leonard said Friday in an email to The Associated Press.
John Binkley, president of Cruise Lines International Association Alaska, says the 2017 season is expected to bring up to 45,000 additional passengers from this year's tally. That would break the old record set in 2008.
The number of sailings also is expected to slightly grow, from 477 this year to 481 next year.
Alaska's last previous million-passenger season was in 2009.
"It's been slow to build back," Binkley said, noting the state's competition with other markets as the cruise industry booms globally, particularly in Asia markets.
The drop in passenger numbers also has been blamed on other factors, including the national recession that ate into discretionary income. Binkley also says the numbers were affected by a $46 passenger head tax approved by voters in 2006, although some have questioned how larger role it played.
The cruise association sued the state over the tax, but dropped the suit after a tax cut approved by state lawmakers was passed into law in 2010.
Around the same time, state funding was increased for travel industry marketing. That boost lasted only a few years before the state's current financial crisis cut into funding, Binkley said.
"We had some very robust years of marketing that brought Alaska back into competition really with other destinations," he said.
The increasing demand is prompting Holland America Line to replace two smaller vessels with larger capacity ships for Alaska sailings next year. Altogether, Holland America utilizes seven vessels in Alaska.
Elvejord, the Holland America spokesman, said every destination tends to be cyclical as far as passenger numbers go. In Alaska's case, demand has ramped up even more in recent months.
"The interest is growing," Elvejord said.
The southeast Alaska town of Sitka is among communities enjoying the growth spurt that's been building since completion of a deep water dock in 2012. This summer, an estimated 130,000 passengers visited the town, a figure that's expected to grow to more than 160,000 next year, according to dock manager Chris McGraw.
Before the dock's construction, cruise ship passengers were brought to shore in smaller boats. That still occasionally happens when there are two ships at port, but for the most part passengers are disembarking at the dock.
"It's making Sitka more attractive for the cruise companies," McGraw said.