Record Cruise Ship Season Starts Sunday in Unalaska

About a thousand people are expected to disembark from the 781-foot Crystal Symphony cruise ship in Unalaska this weekend -- the most the town has ever seen. (Courtesy: Crystal Cruises)
About a thousand people are expected to disembark from the 781-foot Crystal Symphony cruise ship in Unalaska this weekend — the most the town has ever seen. (Courtesy: Crystal Cruises)

Unalaska will get a big population boost this weekend, with the first cruise ship of what’s shaping up to be a busy summer.

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On Sunday, the 781-foot Crystal Symphony will tie up at the Coast Guard dock and offload the most passengers Unalaska has ever seen — around a thousand people, as many as a quarter of the town’s residents.

Normally, the state ferry marks the start of summer in the Aleutians. But this year, the aging ferry Tustumena is in shipyard for repairs — its first scheduled stop in Unalaska is now May 23. And state budget cuts could mean fewer sailings overall after that.

Unalaska visitor’s bureau director Cathy Jordan says a shorter ferry season will have a big impact on the Aleutian Chain — for tourists and residents alike.

“A lot of people like to come out on the ferry, stay for a day or two, maybe fly back on [PenAir], or they’ll take the ferry back the same day,” Jordan says. “But also important for the Chain is for the smaller communities that get on the ferry along the way and come out here and shop, and then bring goods back to their hometown. And that also impacts our businesses.”

But she’s hoping more cruise ships might help fill the gap. 2015 will be Unalaska’s longest, busiest cruise season ever — the Crystal Symphony is the first of eight ships with scheduled stops. One, in September, will bring 2,000 passengers to town.

“I’m a little concerned about how we’re going to be able to accommodate that many people on the island for that amount of time,” Jordan says. “They don’t always all disembark, so hopefully we’ll be able to scatter them throughout the island at one time. You know, our tourist destinations can’t hold but 150, 200 people. So we’ll try to keep them busy with some other alternatives.”

She’s calling in extra buses and working with the town’s few restaurants and museums to organize special events. She’ll also have volunteers on hand to help guide explorers. Jordan says that small-town feel is one advantage Unalaska has over bigger ports.

“I’ve seen many people stop and talk to cruise ship passengers and give directions, or give an idea of what to do next,” she says. “Or even when we have a group of birders in from a cruise ship, they’ll ask, ‘Where can I find this bird?’ And I’ve seen local people [say] ‘Oh, go down this road and take a right,’ you know, so it’s really great.”

Of course, Unalaska’s main draw is as a fuel stop. It’s the first big port of call for ships crossing the Pacific from Asia.

The Crystal Symphony is one of those. It’s en route from Tokyo to Vancouver, with stops in Kodiak, Seward and Ketchikan after it leaves the Aleutians.