Travel Scene: Alaska tourism cruising for a rebound
Alaska tourism — part of the economic lifeblood of the state — appears to be on a rebound this season.
Cruising, which is the state's principal tourism draw, slumped two of the past three years but is expected to hit the coveted 1 million total in 2013, with several additional cruise ships set to ply Alaskan waters.
The economic slowdown in the U.S. was mainly responsible for the drawdown in Alaska's tourism numbers in 2010 and 2011. Cruising's peak activity in Alaska came in 2008 and 2009, with about a million passengers each year, but totals dropped to 880,000 in each of the next two years, accompanied by similar drops in traffic in air, ferry and highway visitors. The cruise total rose to 940,000 last year.
This year, Alaska tourism officials believe the figure will rise to a million again. The state depends heavily on tourism. The tourist industry resulted in 45,000 jobs and $3.7 billion in spending last year, officials report, and visitor-related revenues, from car rental taxes to cruise ship passenger head taxes, bring in about $118 million yearly, based on figures from 2008 to 2011.
Cruising, by far, is the most popular way to visit Alaska — some 60 percent of the 1.7 million tourists arrive this way and most of them travel on itineraries that feature the Inland Passage that graces Alaska's southeast coast.
There are 20 or so ships representing all of the major lines that cruise during Alaska's short season — usually from the middle of May to the middle of September — and there will be more than the usual number this year.
Among the additions is a Norwegian Cruise Line liner — NCL's third in that area — while Holland America Line, which sails seven ships in the Alaska market, has updated its routes to accommodate up to 14,000 more passengers this year. Several smaller lines also are adding service.
Bigger ships also are coming, from Celebrity Cruises and Princess Cruises. According to officials quoted in the Alaska Journal of Commerce, the additional capacity is the cruise industry's response to the state agreeing to cut the cruise ship head tax, which played a part in the declining capacity in 2010-2011.
While cruising is picking up steam, several airlines have added new flights to Alaska this season. Among them are Iceland Air and United Airlines. A Russian carrier, Yakutia Air, will continue flights it started last season between Anchorage and the Kamchatka Peninsula.
While officials are optimistic about 2013, they temper their optimism by pointing to the continued fight over the Environmental Protection Agency's Emission Control Area, or ECA, which requires cruises to burn ultra low-sulfur fuel in upcoming years. This makes for uncertainly down the road, they caution.
The world's largest Legoland theme park, at Winter Haven, Fla., will expand this summer to include a new ride and interactive play area based on the company's popular Legends of China product line.
The new section will include an interactive water ride called "The Quest for Chi," a Lego-building challenge, a 4-D movie, and a meet-and-greet with costumed characters.