Crystal Returns, Disney Arrives: Is Alaska on the Upswing?

September 11, 2009
Alaska Glacier (6:34 p.m. EDT) -- On the heels of Crystal Cruises' decision to return to the ailing Alaska market in 2011 for the first time in six years, Disney announced its plans to offer Alaska cruises for the first time…ever. Could this be a sign that both mainstream and luxury lines are taking a new interest in the region?

Joining Crystal Symphony -- which will offer 12-night itineraries, roundtrip from San Francisco to Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway and Sitka -- will be Disney Wonder, featuring a series of weeklong Alaska sailings between May and September that will sail roundtrip from Vancouver and call in Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway.

Both lines' announcements come at a crucial time for Alaska, which is currently battling for the repeal of a $50 head tax, implemented in 2006 as part of a state initiative. The extra fee, which is assessed to each cruise passenger, has been partly to blame for a recent reduction in the number of cruises -- and, subsequently, the number of tourists -- traveling to the region.

Several cruise lines -- including Royal Caribbean, Cruise West, Carnival, Princess and Holland America -- have traded in Alaska sailings for those in other, more popular and less expensive destinations, leaving natives of many tourism-dependent port cities scratching their heads for a solution.

As far as luxury cruises are concerned, the only lines in 2009 to sail an entire season of Alaska cruises were Silversea and Regent Seven Seas, both of which plan to continue offering itineraries in the region in 2010. Crystal also called in Alaska this year, but did so only during a repositioning cruise from Japan.

In the past two months, summits have been held in Juneau and Anchorage to discuss tactics for increasing tourism in the region and the possible reformation or eradication of the head tax. After several presentations -- including a speech by new Governor Sean Parnell -- and a survey to determine next steps, a third summit has been scheduled for October 5 in Fairbanks in an attempt to take action.

Although the added sailings could bring more than 56,000 passengers to the area in 2011, the city of Juneau alone expects to lose $25 million in tourism revenue in 2010. Whether Crystal's decision will mark the beginning of an Alaska upswing remains to be seen, but we'll keep you posted.

--by Ashley Kosciolek, Copy Editor