Alaska Braces for 2010 and Beyond


Holland America’s Ryndam will be pulling out of Alaska in 2011


Alaska’s tourism industry, already feeling the hit of fewer visitors in 2009, is now bracing itself for the 2010 travel season and beyond, with cruise lines planning double-digit per-passenger decreases to the state.

While Alaska was cheering the entry of Disney Cruise Line in 2011, last month Holland America joined the list of cruise lines pulling ships from Alaska, announcing that the 1,270-passenger Ryndam will move to Europe for its summers starting in 2011. The redeployment will leave the line with just seven vessels in the state for the first time since 2005.

That announcement came just hours after Princess Cruises unveiled its plans to pull a ship from Alaska in 2011, leaving it with just six vessels in the state.

The line had already announced plans earlier this year to reduce its footprint to seven ships for the summer of 2010.

The continued hits from the cruise industry are expected to have a significant impact on the state, which draws two-thirds of its visitors by ship.

Alaska has seen the number of visitors from cruise ships hit roughly 1 million in recent years. That number is expected to fall by 14 percent, said Ron Peck, president of the Travel Industry Association. Much of the loss of both ships and passengers is being blamed on Alaska’s cruise passenger tax.

Travel agents, too, are feeling the strain. Bernadette Murphy, of Murphy Cruises & Travel in Smyrna, DE, says the challenges of selling Alaska are manifold.

“I sell mostly cruises and I have found that many people still find the Alaska cruise-ship tax objectionable, potentially making this head tax a detriment to Alaska’s tourism growth,” she notes, adding that “clients who still travel to Alaska by cruise ship say they spend less—if any—money on shore excursions and shopping or eating while in Alaskan ports. Others say they do not believe the money will be used for its intended purpose and choose not to travel to Alaska.

“Another challenging factor,” Murphy says, “is the airfare and the difficulty of getting to departure ports (stops and flight connections), as my Alaska cruise clients are, typically, retirees.”

Cost has also been a factor for Jeannette Holding’s clients. The Meeker, CO-based agent with Rio Blanco Travel Agency says the greatest resistance she gets is that Alaska is simply too expensive, particularly for families. “People travel to Mexico because they receive a lot for their buck,” she says. “It is sometimes difficult to establish the value and the difference of quality of treatment and luxuries offered by an Alaskan cruise in comparison to a cruise to Mexico.

“Kids are expensive enough for parents, with sports and all sorts of their activities and desires,” she continues.

“I believe more families would book [an Alaska] cruise with their kids if it were more cost-effective.”

On the Upside

Still, not all travel agents see Alaska as a challenging destination to sell. Mickey O’Donnell of Mickey’s Travel in Comfort, TX, says that Alaska practically sells itself because it is a vacation that is on so many people’s wish list. “If there is a challenge,” she says, “it is narrowing down the many choices—clients want to see as much of Alaska as possible. My specialty is selling the cruise/land tour packages so clients can see the beauty of Alaska from the ocean and then experience the beauty of the land along with the wildlife.”

In fact, as O’Donnell says, the greatest problem in selling Alaska may be that there is too much to see and do there. “It is very difficult to see both the land and water portion if you only have seven days,” she says.

“That is why the seven-day cruises are water-only. To do the land portion also, a client would need to have 10 days or more. Time is the biggest challenge to selling Alaska.”

Selling With Enthusiasm

Unlike many of her colleagues, Deanna Sutherland Tracey doesn’t have a problem selling Alaska. The president of CDT Travel in Newburgh, NY, has been to the Last Frontier twice and has unbridled enthusiasm for and extensive knowledge of the destination, which she shares with her clients. Her advice for fellow agents? “First and foremost, you have to get to know the product,” she says, “and then you can educate your client.”

Tracey also takes a creative approach to selling that has paid off for her agency. Last November, she held an event in partnership with Princess Cruises at a nearby hotel that attracted more than 120 people. “We promoted Princess Cruises’ ‘Alaska Wilderness Sale,’” she recalls. “I brought in a real, live wolf, and we had a naturalist who brought in a bald eagle and a snowy owl.” The event was a big success, Tracey says, and as a result she has booked 13 cruise tours so far—and her overall projections for Alaska trips this year are looking very strong, with approximately 75 clients booked for Alaska vacations as of early January.

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