Changes driving the small vessel cruise market on the North American Pacific coast. Beginning each May and continuing through September, CLIA Alaska member lines operate 33 generally large and medium-size ships in Alaska waters. Alaska itineraries consist primarily of two routes: round-trip through Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage, mainly from Seattle and Vancouver, B.C.; and cross-the- Gulf-of-Alaska trips, beginning or ending in Anchorage, primarily via the Southcentral Alaska port cities of Seward and Whittier. As a result, Alaska’s top five cruise ports (Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway, Glacier Bay, Sitka) accounted for 83% of the cruise ships visits to the state with 19 other communities accounting for a 17% market share of cruise ship visits in 2017.

Mass consumer cruise tourism is vital to the Alaskan economy since ship guests comprise 60 percent of Alaska’s summer visitors according to CLIA Alaska. With a concentration on cruise traffic amongst Alaska top five ports, state officials have worked with stakeholders to address changes in the market that have impacted operators of smaller vessels.

Research prepared for the State of Alaska reveals that small cruise vessel (less than 250 passengers) activity peaked in 2006 with 28,767 passengers and accounted for three percent of the Alaska cruise market. By 2011 passenger volume dropped to 8,830 small ship guests and accounted for only one percent of the market.

A decade ago, Cruise West vessels visited Alaska ports from Southeast, to Prince William Sound, to the Aleutian Islands and the Far North. Other companies like American West Steamboat Company, Clipper Cruise Lines, Glacier Bay Cruise Lines and Lindblad Expeditions, also had a strong presence in the state, particularly in Southeast Alaska.

Brittney Cioni-Haywood, Division Director, Division of Economic Development State of Alaska in an e-mail interview indicated that there had been a few of the changes to the small cruise vessel market since 2015. Highlights of the small cruise vessel fleet include:

  • Alaskan Dream Cruises added a ship during summer 2016 to bring the Alaskan–based fleet total to five vessels.
  • UnCruise Adventures will return a seventh vessel to Alaska for 2018.
  • Lindblad Expeditions added a third ship to its Southeast Alaska itineraries after having only two ships in Alaska for more than 30 years.

Ms. Cioni-Haywood suggests that the factors accounting for the renewed interest in small cruise ship itineraries in Alaska are the increased interest in small ship cruising and growing interest in colder climate destinations and an earlier start to the sailing season.

To tap into the increased interest in sailing in the Arctic, Lindblad Expeditions will place the National Geographic Orion on an Arctic itinerary for 2018. Although, not a small cruise ship by Alaska visitor statistics definition (vessels less than 250 passengers), Crystal Cruises (1000 passengers) will make its third sailing of the Northwest Passage in 2018.

The earlier start to the sailing season is being led by UnCruise Adventures which has begun homeporting some of its vessels in Alaska instead of Seattle. UnCruise Adventures has promoted the earlier itineraries by highlighting advantages of better weather and fewer crowds in April. Homeporting in Alaska brings some financial benefits to the homeport communities and allows the company to begin cruises in April.

Pacific Northwest

American Cruise Lines announced that their ship, American Constellation was on its way to Puget Sound for the upcoming Pacific Northwest cruise season in January 2018. The vessel’s inaugural 2017 season was on the East Coast. American Constellation will sail the three Puget Sound itineraries March, April, May and early June 2018. The ship will then head to Alaska in late June through early September for Southeast Alaska cruises and the longer Alaska Inside Passage itinerary. American Constellation will resume Fall 2018 cruises on Puget Sound in late September through early November.

The Port of Astoria is the first deepwater cruise ship port on the Columbia River. It is situated near the mouth of the majestic Columbia River. The Port serves a growing cruise ship port-of-call business. Bruce Conner, Cruise Marketing Director for the port, stated,” there will be 27 deep sea cruise ships calls in 2018 and feature the maiden visit by the Disney Wonder”.

The Cruise Lines International Association’s 2018 Cruise Industry Outlook reports that a significant industry trend is that river and small ship cruising continues to gain tractions among travelers. The vast Columbia River is 4.5 miles wide and separates Oregon from neighboring Washington State. The river provides the opportunity for Astoria to tap into this growing trend toward small vessel travel with American Cruise Lines supplying Columbia River cruise. For the first time in 2018, round-trips from Portland will be offered.  Itinerary highlights are the Columbia River Gorge, a national scenic area and the only navigable route through the Cascade Mountains.