Alaska-bound cruises from Seattle will decline in 2011

Jessie Van Berkel

SEATTLE -- Thousands of Alaska-bound tourists will depart from Seattle this week, heading north to relax, watch whales and hike glaciers as the cruise season picks up steam.

Despite the crowded docks, the Port of Seattle expects to see about 62,350 fewer cruise goers this year than in 2010 -- a $53 million drop in income for the city, according to the Port.

For each Seattle-based voyage, the city brings in $1.9 million as passengers eat, shop and rent hotel rooms, and vessels stock up on supplies and pay for services such as unloading and trash disposal, according to an outside assessment commissioned by the port.

Last year a record 223 cruises took off from Seattle.

This year's drop to 195 planned departures is partly due to Princess Cruises and the Holland America Line each moving one ship to Europe. The Port of Seattle is in regular contact with the cruise executives and is hopeful they'll return to the Alaska route, spokesman Peter McGraw said.

A couple years ago, when Holland America decided to pull a ship from Seattle starting this year, it was partly because of an expensive head tax on passengers arriving in Alaska, said Paul Goodwin, executive vice president of planning at Holland America. Alaska has since lowered the tax.

As Seattle struggled to draw tourists during the recession, the summer traffic from cruise lines remained fairly constant, said Tom Norwalk, president and CEO of the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The number of passengers leaving from Seattle has grown every year with the exception of 2009, when the total passengers dipped by about 5,300 from the year before.

Seattle restaurants and hotels have not seen a big drop in business, Norwalk said, as an increase in other types of travelers offsets the downturn in the Alaska cruise industry.

Cruise passengers who arrive in Seattle a couple days early or linger after a trip aren't concentrated along the waterfront, Norwalk said. The hotels and restaurants they frequent are spread across the city, so there's not a particular business that's struggling.

While Seattle is seeing a slump, business in Vancouver is booming. The Canadian port expects a 15 percent increase in voyages this year, said Peter Xotta, vice president for planning and development at Port Metro Vancouver. Last year, when the number of ships coming into Seattle hit that all-time high, Vancouver's business dropped 31 percent.

The two ports have been dueling for liners since the first cruise ship set off from the Port of Seattle to Alaska in 1999. It was one of six vessels that made Seattle its home port that year as the city broke into a field Vancouver had dominated since the 1970s.

Disney entered the Alaska cruise market this year and is taking a "test-the-waters" approach, Disney spokeswoman Christi Erwin Donnan said. The Disney Wonder made Vancouver its home port and is expected to bring in almost $40 million for the city, according to Port Metro Vancouver. But that income won't be around for long.

The line is headed to Seattle next spring, and will make only two home-port calls in Vancouver next year.

"Both ports have a great deal to offer," Erwin Donnan said, noting that things are going well in Vancouver but the company wanted to try another option.

The ports' travel options differ. The Port of Seattle has primarily round-trip cruises, and Vancouver offers more options for passengers to stop in an Alaska town for a while and explore the territory, Xotta said. Vancouver-based ships also travel more slowly and take the route through the scenic Inside Passage.

But convenience for American travelers has given Seattle an advantage: Many can drive to Seattle, and airfare into the city is generally cheaper than flying to British Columbia.

The Seattle Times