Norwegian Cruise Line has unexpectedly canceled the rest of its summer visits to the Prince William Sound city of Valdez, sending shocked local businesses scrambling to refund customers and adjust plans for the season.
The 900-foot Norwegian Spirit, the biggest cruise ship scheduled to visit the town of 4,000, has canceled 11 visits, according to interim city manager Nate Duval.
That means about 16,000 fewer people will visit Valdez, cutting down the number of anticipated cruise guests by about one-third this summer.
The town has seen rapid growth in cruise traffic since the pandemic, with a handful of cruise lines visiting. Local entrepreneurs have been launching new excursions to take advantage of the growing market, business owners say.
But for many who were counting on big crowds from the Norwegian ship, which can carry up to 2,000 guests, the cancellation has dealt a major blow.
In an interview Thursday, Duval said the city learned about the cancellation in an email late Tuesday from Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska, which provides services to the vessels in Alaska waters.
Norwegian Cruise Line did not tell city officials why the company made the decision. Officials with Norwegian Cruise Line did not respond to requests for comment.
Lanie Downs, head of community relations in Alaska for Cruise Lines International Association, the world’s largest trade group for the industry, also declined to comment on the cancellation.
“We do not comment on individual line decisions or matters,” she said.
Rick Erickson, vice president of Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska, said Norwegian Cruise Lines did not tell him why they would no longer visit Valdez this summer. With the Valdez cancellation, the cruise line has added Southeast Alaska stops such as Icy Strait Point for this summer, Erickson said.
The Norwegian Spirit was scheduled to be in Valdez on Thursday. The town was quieter but still had visitors who traveled down the Richardson Highway, mostly RVers and Alaskans, local business owners said.
But the Norwegian guests were especially important to tour operators in Valdez because they had extra flexibility in their onshore schedule compared to guests from other lines, Duval said.
The cancellation of those stops will hurt an array of businesses that provide everything from kayak rentals to glacier sightseeing tours, Duval said.
“It’s a significant hit that businesses will have to adjust to, so there’s some obvious disappointment,” he said.
Norwegian Spirit had called on the town a few times this summer before the cancellation, boosting expectations, Duval said. Mountain-backed Valdez is northeast of Seward, and Seward is the start and the end of the Norwegian Spirit trips.
The owners of Valdez Stay & Play said they recently bought a small fleet of vehicles including buses, a trolley and a Sprinter van to meet the demand for local tours from the Norwegian Cruise Line guests.
They had just launched Valdez Trolley and Bus Tours. Business boomed on days when the Norwegian cruise ship arrived, said co-owner Jim McCay.
Now they’ve had to lay off three employees and they’re busy processing several thousand dollars in refunds, said Magdalena McKay, his wife. They plan to immediately sell two buses.
“We had 50 to 75 people standing out in front of the trolley waiting to get on line. It was crazy,” Jim McCay said. “That now is gone.”
“So now we’re trying to shift gears,” he said.
They’ll still offer trolley tours that include an emphasis on the history of Valdez, but they’ll try to drum up more business from highway travelers.
On Thursday, they made an agreement with another business that will allow them to bring their rentable e-bikes and kayaks closer to the heart of downtown, to increase their visibility to tourists.
Colleen Stephens, president of Stan Stephens Cruises, which provides glacier and wildlife tours on ships carrying about 145 guests, said numerous businesses in town have been forced to rearrange plans.
“It’s having a substantial impact for us,” she said of her company.
Stan Stephens Cruises is losing several tours that would have carried guests from the Norwegian Spirit under a contract with the cruise line, she said.
“The biggest issue is we committed assets that are no longer being used,” she said.
Duval said cruise ship tourism in Valdez withered after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks closed a top attraction: cruise guest excursions to the Valdez Marine Terminal, where oil from the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline is loaded onto oceangoing tankers.
But cruise lines were rapidly returning to Valdez after the pandemic, Duval said.
The reason Norwegian Cruise Line canceled might be because its large ships had to tie up at the container terminal that’s a few miles from the center of town, rather than another dock near town where smaller cruise ships can port, Duval said.
The container terminal falls under U.S. Homeland Security regulations, so passengers cannot freely move about, and there are no local vendors there to meet them like there were before 9/11, Duval said.
As a result, Norwegian Spirit guests had to ride buses into town, adding time and cost.
Duval said the city plans to renew talks with the state of Alaska so large ships can use the state ferry terminal that’s frequently available when the ferry leaves town.
The city is working to bring in new cruise lines in the future. And it hopes Norwegian Cruise Line returns to Valdez, he said.
“We want to keep an open dialogue with Norwegian and others, and find ways to make them successful here in the future,” he said.