Haines Assembly approves cruise ship waiver incentive

The Oosterdam cruise ship docked in Haines. (Emily Files)
The Oosterdam cruise ship docked in Haines. (Emily Files)

Haines has some of the lowest cruise ship moorage fees in Southeast Alaska. And last week, the borough assembly approved further lowering those fees for three summers. The assembly accepted a resolution that would give 50 percent off waivers to all cruise ships for a three-year time period. It’s part of a marketing plan to draw more ships to Haines.

This summer, Haines sees about one or two cruise ships each week. Depending on their size, the vessels pay around $3,000 to pull into port. The resolution the borough assembly passed would give a 50 percent discount on that fee in the summers of 2017 to 2019.

“We need a stronger incentive package to attract ships,” said Haines Tourism Director Leslie Ross. “Why a waiver? We have an empty dock.  We have one ship per week, we have this gorgeous dock that we sunk $6 million dollars into. It’s not just going to affect tour operators, it affects our businesses, our restaurants. It’s a business expansion that goes across the entire town.”

Ross said Haines has tough competition for cruise ship traffic, with Skagway and Juneau nearby. Both of those towns are ‘tier one’ ports. They have destinations like Skagway’s White Pass and Yukon Railroad that financially benefit cruise lines. Ross says going to cruise lines with a moorage discount will strengthen her pitch for Haines and hopefully boost cruise ship traffic long-term.

In 2012, the borough assembly approved waiving docking fees for two new ships for the 2015 season – the Golden Princess and the Celebrity Infinity. Ross says those ships gave evidence the cruise ship waivers pay for themselves in sales tax.

“When the Golden Princess came in this year, they sold 1,200 tours,” Ross said. “And I know that for a fact. We can estimate an average of $75 per tour. So that’s what we get sales tax off of. So that estimates $4,950 in sales tax just from the tours sold.”

Assemblyman Dave Berry pointed out that the Princess and Infinity only scheduled one or two dockings in Haines this summer. He said in order to make the economy strong enough to support new businesses here, he would want to see the ships come in on a regular basis – more like once a week, not once a summer.

“I need to see where ship number one is not going to come in once, but it’s gonna come in 15 times, ship number two is not going to come in once, it’s gonna come in 12 times,” Berry said.

He suggested a tiered incentive that would motivate cruise ships to schedule multiple dockings. Tour company owner Sean Gaffney responded. He said cruise lines have been reluctant to come to Haines in the past 15 years.

“We’re moving to a place that they’re willing to try, but to give them room to do it, without trying to bind or commit them.” Gaffney said. “And the onus is still on us entirely to show them. I think we’re doing it, but I don’t think we’re a place to demand it.

Gaffney is on the tourism advisory board, which recommended the 50 percent, three-year incentive over two other options because they thought it was the simplest one.

Another question that came up was whether ships that already come to Haines will get fee waivers as well. Assemblyman Ron Jackson said waiving fees for the current ships would mean an estimated $40,000 loss in revenue for the borough.

“I think we need to word this so that it’s about the new ships coming in, not about giving a gift to the ones that are already coming in,” Jackson said.

Assembly member George Campbell disagreed. He said offering the waiver to new ships only could aggravate the current ships and encourage them to dock somewhere else.

Campbell recognized that if the incentive doesn’t draw any new ships to Haines, the borough would suffer a financial loss.

“It has potential to fall on its face and it has great potential to help our economies,” Campbell said.

The majority of the assembly seemed to think the positive potential outweighed the negative. No one moved to change the waiver proposal. The assembly approved the resolution in a 5-1 vote, with Jackson opposed.

That question of whether the 50 percent off deal will actually work won’t be answered for some time. The incentive starts in 2017, because cruise lines have already set their schedules for next summer.