In an Aleutian fishing port, cruise ships bring possibility and peril

Cruise ship visits are becoming the new normal in Unalaska, a proudly isolated Aleutian fishing community reckoning with what it means to be Alaska’s newest cruise destination.

UNALASKA — It was a regular September Sunday in Unalaska: Towering volcanic mountains still velvety green and exploding with blueberries, rafts of otters floating near shore, fish processing plants humming. The wind blew a steady 20 mph, good enough for the daily flight from Anchorage to attempt a landing.

Just before noon, a Hurtigruten cruise ship docked and disgorged 500 passengers.

Abruptly, hundreds of tourists wearing identical red jackets fanned out over the roads, stopping to snap photos of bald eagles perched on telephone poles.

Days like this are becoming the new normal in Unalaska, a proudly isolated Aleutian fishing port reckoning with what it means to be Alaska’s newest cruise destination.

This summer, 18 cruise ships visited Unalaska. That’s the most ever “by a significant margin,” said Carlin Enlow, the executive director of the Unalaska Visitors Bureau.

Next year, up to 24 cruise ships are expected as high-end “expedition” cruising companies seek unfrequented Alaska destinations, and a changing climate makes cruising in places like the Northwest Passage and Bering Sea a viable option.

Unalaska now faces urgent choices about both the practical matters of hosting tourists and philosophical questions that get to the heart of what makes life special on this windy Aleutian island.

Some people in Unalaska see tourism as an opportunity to diversify the economy of a town long dominated by the fishing industry. Others see peril in an influx of tourists, and look to communities in Southeast Alaska struggling with how to balance large-scale cruise tourism with quality of life for locals.

“A lot of people have the view of hey, this is my home,” said Enlow. “They don’t necessarily want it to become a Ketchikan, or Juneau."

This summer, the visitors bureau estimates about 10,000 people made a stop in Unalaska via cruise ship — roughly the same number that come to fish and process during the two major fishing seasons, according to Enlow.

“I think we are kind of at a tipping point,” said Peggy McLaughlin, director of ports for the City of Unalaska. “We need to make some decisions about how to handle this.”

“Do we want to make a full-fledged cruise ship town out of Dutch Harbor?” she asked.

Cruise ship days

Eight hundred miles west of Anchorage, Dutch Harbor/Unalaska is both a busy fishing port and a close-knit town. Dutch Harbor has been the biggest commercial fishing port in the United States for more than 20 years, welcoming a rotating cast of fish processing plant employees and fishermen.

Unalaska is a year-round community of 4,500 people, including Unangan natives, scientists, port and fish processing workers, schoolteachers, artists and eccentrics who’ve decided that canceled flights and high grocery prices are a small price to pay for the severe beauty and uniqueness of life on this nearly treeless island. It’s the kind of town where transient fishermen can be identified by their Bering Sea Fisherman or Alaska Ship Supply sweatshirts, versus the public radio hoodies favored by locals.

Beyond its strategic refueling location, Dutch Harbor has a lot to offer for adventurous tourists, the cruise lines say.

Hurtigruten, a Norwegian-owned cruise line, added the destination to its itinerary for the first time in 2019. The hybrid-powered Roald Amundsen ship will return in 2020 “calling at off-the-beaten-path destinations such as Dutch Harbor, Petersburg and the Diomede Islands,” said Rune Thomas Edge, an Oslo-based spokesman for the company.

“The uniqueness of these communities and destinations is what makes them so special to us and our guests,” he said.

Most of the ships coming through Unalaska are either small or medium-sized cruises with lengthy Vancouver, B.C. to Tokyo itineraries or, in a few cases, Alaska cruises beginning in Nome and ending in Southeast Alaska.

Expedition jackets and ship supplies

On that windy September Sunday, the Hurtigruten passengers wandered toward a knot of commercial businesses in what could be called downtown Dutch Harbor: the Grand Aleutian hotel, the Alaska Ship Supply, Safeway, the Norwegian Rat Saloon and a restaurant called Amelia’s.

Inside the Alaska Ship Supply grocery and hardware store, passengers from the MS Roald Amundsen were immediately identifiable by their red and yellow “expedition jackets,” part of the all-inclusive luxury cruise they had paid upward of $10,000 to take.

Where there are usually 20-year-old fishermen in sweatpants, there was now a couple from England and Sweden loaded down with expensive camera gear, perusing the wall of “Deadliest Catch”-themed T-shirts.

Meandering the aisles of the grocery/warehouse store/maritime supply store, the cruise passengers disappeared down aisles stocked with 6 lb. 10 oz. containers of ¡Que Bueno! nacho cheese and other food items popular with crews embarking on weeks and months at sea.

After exiting the Ship Supply, some headed toward the Norwegian Rat Saloon, a popular beach-side bar known locally as "The Rat.”

In the parking lot, a local named Kelly Eleam stood wearing a full-body crab costume. Eleam’s job, on cruise ship days, is to recruit customers for a king crab dinner at The Rat.

“It’s a great job, I make some extra money, I’m good at it, and I get a crab plate at the end of the day,” said Eleam, who is known as “Fingers” locally due to a table saw accident that reduced his digits.

He moved to Unalaska basically to get to the end of the road beyond the end of the road, he says.

“Forty miles of roads and no stoplights,” he said. “I hate stoplights.”

Farther down the road, cruise passengers Alan and Margaret Thomson from Salt Spring Island in British Columbia paused on their way into the Museum of the Aleutians, one of only a few traditional attractions for tourists.

They had decided to take the Hurtigruten cruise of a lifetime because it promised wild islands and wildlife, they said.

Their first two scheduled stops, on uninhabited St. Matthew Island and St. Paul, were both canceled due to rough seas and a problem with smaller vessel landings.

Dutch Harbor was their first stop. Like more than a few other passengers, they had seen Dutch Harbor on “Deadliest Catch,” the long-running reality TV show about Bering Sea crab fishing.

‘It’s fun to share the story of the Aleutians’

Due to a storm in the Bering Sea, the MS Roald Amundsen was actually the second cruise ship to stop in Unalaska that day — a ship called the Silver Muse had simultaneously been in port for a few hours on its “ultra-luxury voyage” from Seward to Tokyo.

The double billing caused some momentary scrambling. An influx of visitors presents challenges and opportunities for the town, Enlow said.

Organizations like the Museum of the Aleutians can make thousands of dollars in a morning with a stream of cruise passengers, and plan to stay open on all days cruise ships are in port. In the past, high school students have been drafted to help answer tourist questions and lead hikes.

“It’s fun to share the story of the Aleutians with the world,” said Enlow, who grew up in Unalaska.

But infrastructure is lacking. Cruise ship passengers are ferried around town in the same school buses Unalaska schoolchildren take to school. If a cruise ship comes to port on a school day, “things get complicated,” Enlow said.

Cruise companies say their customers have chosen an ends-of-the-Earth voyage to remote places and are happy to visit places with plenty of character but without much tourist infrastructure. But some basics would be nice, said McLaughlin.

“We need things like public restrooms. Connectivity with modern access to high speed internet and cell service. Basic things like ATMs,” McLaughlin said.

It wasn’t that long ago that banks would run out of cash in Unalaska, she said.

“How do you keep the ruggedness and ... be hospitable?” Enlow said.

‘It’s still wild’

As this year’s cruise ship season winds down, people in Unalaska say it’s time for serious discussion about how the town wants to handle cruise ships in the future.

Unalaska has an opportunity to shape its relationship with cruise ships early on, said Enlow. She wants to see a tourism best practices council started.

“Maybe we want to cap this, or control the market in some way,” McLaughlin said.

Vessels pay by the foot to use city port facilities but “cruise ships have a really crazy big break” on the fees, a relic of a time “many moons ago when they were trying to cater to cruise ships a little bit,” McLaughlin said.

There will probably be a community discussion about whether that’s the way to go moving forward, McLaughlin said. There’s also the idea of a cruise ship passenger head tax being floated, and a proposal for a dedicated cruise ship dock.

The last cruise ship of the season left Unalaska on Sept. 29. The stormy fall is coming, and then the Bering Sea crabbing season.

Next summer may bring more cruise ships, but Unalaska will never be a mass tourist hub, Enlow thinks: It’s a tiny dot in the Bering Sea, at the crossroads of the world’s shipping routes but still far from almost everything.

“It’s still wild,” she said. “There’s still so much of that unknown out here. You have to really want to come.”

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.