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As a luxury cruise ship comes to town, Nome confronts its future

 

NOME — Residents in this Western Alaska town awoke Sunday morning to the novel sight of the largest cruise ship that has ever visited anchored just offshore.

On board the luxury-class Crystal Serenity were 1,060 cruisers making their last Alaska port call before the ship they paid many thousands of dollars to board attempts to become the largest passenger vessel to sail the Northwest Passage.

Not an hour after the ship's arrival, they filed onto smaller vessels that would take them into Nome, where the port isn't deep enough to accommodate the Serenity's draft.

The experiment had begun.

The Bering Sea town of 3,800 people is the most tourist-savvy community in this remote part of Alaska. Every year, it serves as the finish of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which brings in spectators from all over the world. One or two cruise ships arrive each summer, but none near the size of the 820-foot Crystal Serenity and none whose passengers have the option to shop on board for Armani clothing and dine on lobster with truffle-yuzu sauce.

This visit, as Mayor Richard Beneville put it, is "a game-changer." City leaders and tour operators have spent eight months preparing for the Crystal Serenity's arrival, believing its success will bring the community closer to becoming a major northern port and injecting more spending from outsiders into the economy.

Warming temperatures in the Arctic brought about by climate change have transformed the region's once impenetrable ice pack into seasonal open waters that — while still dangerous — are increasingly seen as navigable.

Beneville, his blue eyes wide and expressive, speaks with proselytistic fervor of the growth of Arctic shipping and its economic possibilities for Nome, the region and the state.

"We've always talked about diversifying the economy in Alaska," he said. "By opening up Western Alaska, the Bering Strait and the Arctic Ocean, we will begin revenue streams that — we don't even know what they are!"

A nearer-term concern was how to cater to the Crystal Serenity's clientele and, without being off-putting, encourage them to spend. Passengers are paying between $22,000 and $120,000 apiece for the 32-day sea voyage from Seward to New York. In return, the ship provides an almost mind-numbing menu of services and leisure activities — including keyboard classes, memoir writing, teeth-whitening consults — and foods.

They are also paying for what John Stoll, Crystal Cruises vice president for land programs, called "authentic experiences" in ports of call.

Passengers from the cruise ship Crystal Serenity stop to view a group of musk oxen on the side of the road just outside of Nome on Aug. 21, 2016. The cruise ship is headed for the Northwest Passage, the largest passenger ship to attempt the crossing. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

The experience in Nome for the Crystal Serenity cruisers began in a muddy parking lot atop the ramp from the dock, where local guides waited in yellow school buses to drive passengers on a tour of the city, a sled-dog demonstration, gold-panning and a National Park Service presentation. Other passengers would wander Nome independently, taking in its weather-beaten homes, infamous bars and the burled arch that in March marks the Iditarod finish line.

Still others planned a guided hike up Anvil Mountain, or a flight to the Alaska Native village of Shishmaref or across the Bering Strait to Provideniya, Russia.

There was some regret among passengers and locals about the rain and the cloud cover Sunday, which sealed off the horizon in all directions. Many cruisers found shelter, a bathroom and a place to browse the wares of local artisans and tchotchke vendors at the Nome Berry Festival, which was rescheduled this year to coincide with the ship's arrival and held in a one-story wood building called the Mini Convention Center.

Linda King, a passenger from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, called the experience "wonderful." She had gone on a tundra wildlife tour and saw a herd of musk oxen and a beaver dam, both of which local guides had scouted out the week before, and picked berries.

She wore a pair of tiny polar bear earrings made of walrus ivory, purchased from Dennis Sinnok, who had flown in from Shishmaref to sell art made by his fellow residents.

Crystal Serenity passenger Linda King, from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, shows off her ivory polar bear earrings she boughtat the Berry Festival in Nome on Aug. 21, 2016. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

"We always try to find somewhere to buy local arts and crafts in all the communities we visit," King said. "My husband loves paintings from the local area."

David Westby, a Londoner who's retired from the financial industry, said he preferred meeting people to buying things, saying he "always finds small communities fascinating, having come from a big city."

"It's a totally different atmosphere," he said. "They know everyone and tend to make visitors feel welcome."

But Westby couldn't pass up the chance to add to his collection of T-shirts from remote places — including Pyongyang, North Korea, and Tristan da Cunha, an island in the South Atlantic — and purchased one from a local gift shop. He also bought a halibut pizza from a restaurant whose name escaped him and bought "a superb blueberry muffin" from a festival vendor.

The future of cruising the Northwest Passage, fraught as it is with fears of a catastrophic accident and worries about pollution in the fragile Arctic ecosystem, depends not only on passenger satisfaction, but on communities' willingness to host them.

Was all the preparation — the placement of portable toilets throughout town, the Crystal Cruises-branded welcome signs posted in the windows, the hundreds of emails, countless meetings and all manner of other, invisible logistics — worth all the time and effort for the Crystal Serenity's 12-hour port call?

Local artist Katie O'Connor, who was selling prints and greeting cards, said in her 15 years of working craft fairs, "this is easily one of the best," and worth disrupting the normal flow of a summer Sunday.

"I can tell you right now, summers are so busy, with people out berry picking and fishing at camp," she said. "These people coming to town are super good for business."

But another artist, Anita Droke, said her beaded earrings and dreamcatchers were not selling as well as she'd hoped. Droke flew in from Anchorage just for the Crystal Serenity after spending three weeks making the items.

"This would be a big hit for the Alaska Federation of Natives, but for this event, it's a total bust for me," she said.

Droke still plans to return next year and is already thinking of ways to make her inventory more appealing to passengers, perhaps by adding more local materials such as sealskin and walrus ivory.

A sculpture graces the Crystal Plaza on the cruise ship Crystal Serenity as it stops in Nome on Aug. 21, 2016. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

For Crystal Cruises, which is owned by leisure and hospitality conglomerate Genting Hong Kong, the Arctic cruise is a promising investment. Tickets for the Northwest Passage crossing sold out in 48 hours, no early-booking discounts were offered and the waiting list of 7,000 people was the longest for any single cruise the company has made, according to Stoll and Captain Birger J. Vorland.

Crystal Cruises already has plans to repeat the Serenity sailing in 2017. And it's building a megayacht called Crystal Endeavor, in homage to Captain James Cook's ship, that's designed to travel in all manner of environments, including the Arctic.

Correction: This story originally identified artist Anita Droke as Anita Drake.

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