Alaska Life

How the 'Love Boat' helped fuel economies of Southeast Alaska

JUNEAU -- "Love Boat" is no more.

The iconic television series featuring distinguished Capt. Stubing, perky cruise director Julie, and the comic but lovable Gopher, Isaac and Doc, has been off the air since 1986.

Even the old Pacific Princess, on which much of the ship scenes were filmed, has broken down and been sent to the scrapyard. Reuters reports the once-glamorous ship was taking on water and required the assistance of two tugs to safely reach a Turkish ship-disposal business.

But in its heyday, the "Love Boat" helped bring cruise ship vacations to the mainstream – before cruising took off to become the huge business it is today in the United States, and especially in Southeast Alaska.

In fact, Alaskans who weren't fans of the show decades ago should be fans of it today.

In the 1970s, before cruising went mainstream, trips were so expensive the target market was the relatively small number of wealthy people who could afford them.

"I can put it in perspective for you," said Fred Reeder, former mayor of Sitka and now the local representative of Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska. "I was looking at a brochure from Princess Cruises from the 1970s. The base fare was $3,300 for a week at a time and you could buy a car for $2,500.

"It wasn't for just anybody, it was very expensive to cruise."

But then, the "Love Boat" came along, and cruise travel went mass market. While cause and effect is only assumed, the growth following the TV show was remarkable.

"It just sort of took off," Reeder said.

And the TV show didn't just boost cruising, it also boosted Alaska by coming to the state to film many episodes and highlighting what would become one of the industry's most popular and profitable destinations.

"Oh, you mean the 'Love Boat' fiasco," said Dee Longenbaugh, who offered up her prominent Sitka home for the site of a fairytale "Love Boat" wedding during the show's first visit to the 49th state. In the 1979 episode, a young Mark Harmon played the groom, several years before being named People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" (in the January 1986 issue) and decades before his success on the hugely popular "NCIS."

Longenbaugh was more interested in books than television, but helped out Sitka's effort to welcome the show by making her home available as a filming location. It wasn't a good experience. The TV folks never followed through on commitments they made.

Kid-friendly cruising

In those days, when the Pacific Princess and other cruise ships came to Alaska, there was little for passengers to do. They could tour the town on yellow school buses and see some historic sights. Passengers were different back then, too, sometimes dubbed "the newly-wed and the nearly dead." The industry didn't solicit children.

But in 2013, the mass-market-priced cruises are targeted at a wide cross section of the public, though still skewing older. Children, especially on the Alaska summer cruises, are an important market.

"It's a reflection of the cost," Reeder said. "You can get a cruise for $500 a week. Who can't afford that?"

In 1985, nearing the end of the "Love Boat's" run, there were 139,000 cruise ship passengers visiting Alaska annually, said Caryl McConkie, a cruise industry researcher with the Division of Economic Development, though that count may have missed some 10,000 early-season visitors. Now, according to the division's data, there are a million or more cruise ship passengers visiting the state each year.

Most pay much more than $500 for their trips, opting for pricier berths or extras in port. Cruise communities have found ways to turn those visitors into thriving local industries. Activities now available for visitors include whale watching, high-end shopping, scenic icefield flights, river rafting, ocean kayaking, rainforest hiking, dramatic Zipline rides, and even walking on a glacier.

As soon as the ships dock, fit young passengers wearing high-tech outdoor gear head off to their adventures.

"There's some pretty amazing stuff to do," Reeder said.

And even those who never thought they'd benefit by helping out "Love Boat" are changing their view.

Longenbaugh eventually opened a bookstore featuring antiquarian books and maps. The Observatory bookstore was originally aimed at Alaskans, but Longenbaugh said her shop, now located in Juneau, makes most of its money during summer tourist season, she said.

On a recent day, a visitor from Minsk, Russia, off a cruise ship was talking with a visitor from France, and being persuaded to purchase an early-edition Proust.

"It's like the ant and the grasshopper," in one of Aesop's Fables, Longenbaugh said. "I'm putting up food for winter."

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of the story, the name for former Sitka mayor Fred Reeder was incorrect.

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