Southeast Tourism Economy Hinged on Cruise Ship Travel

The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development released a report this week that puts tourism’s impact on Southeast Alaska into numbers. The report calls Southeast the ‘epicenter’ of cruise ship traffic in the state – and that’s the main driver of the visitor industry.

“[I’m on] the Celebrity Solstice,” said Floridian tourist Martin Levinson. “I visited all the 49 other states and this is the last one. I saved the best for last.”

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The cruise ship Norwegian Pearl sails south through Chatham Strait on its final voyage of 2013. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)
The cruise ship Norwegian Pearl sails south through Chatham Strait on its final voyage of 2013. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

Levinson was one of the first cruise ship visitors to Skagway early this summer. He  is one of about a million people who visit Southeast each summer, most arriving on cruise ships.

“Tourism’s one of the big parts of Southeast’s economy,” said Department of Labor Economist Conor Bell, who authored the recent report using statistics from 2014. “I don’t think there’s enough real analysis of what impact tourism really has to our region.”

He found that there were about 4,600 tourism-related jobs in Southeast, making up about 11 percent of the region’s summer economy.

The report says Southeast’s economy is ‘highly seasonal,’ and most of that increase is tied to tourism. From May to September of 2014, there was an average of about 7,000 more jobs each month than the rest of the year. More than half were in visitor-related industries.

Tour guides are the most common of those jobs, followed by waiters and waitresses and then retail salespeople.

The highest paying of visitor-related jobs are captains, mates and pilots of water vessels — earning an average of about $17,000 a summer. Tour guides earned an average of about $6,000 in a summer.

Visitor-related jobs are especially concentrated in three Southeast towns: Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway. Bell found that in 2014, Juneau had about 1,700 jobs directly related to summer tourism, Ketchikan had about 1,000 and Skagway had around 800. Of those three, Skagway stands out.

“The impact of tourism should be apparent to any Skagway resident. For one thing, the summer employment for tourism exceeds the year-round population. And so there’s a huge influx of people. And over half the jobs of summer are in tourism industries. And that’s only counting direct tourism jobs.

53 percent of Skagway’s summer jobs are directly visitor-related. That’s compared to 12 percent in Ketchikan and nine percent in Juneau.

Some of the ports that have less steady or no cruise ship traffic see much less of an economic impact from tourism. For example, last summer, Sitka had 340 visitor-related jobs, Haines had about 200, Petersburg saw 50, Wrangell 40, Prince of Wales Island 150, and Yakutat fewer than 10. The Hoonah-Angoon census area, which includes Gustavus and Glacier Bay, added 250 summer tourism jobs.

Bell says some communities are looking to increase those numbers.

“Yakutat had their first few ships this year and they’re evaluating whether they want to expand that in the future, Hoonah build a dock in recent years,” Bell said. “More and more Southeast communities are going to enter the market and it’s going to make the market more competitive but also more exciting for travelers and it could lead to more economic development.”

In Haines, the borough assembly voted to offer 50 percent- discounted docking fee waivers to cruise ships in summer of 2017. The goal of the waivers is to draw more ships to Haines.

Bell says tourism jobs and cruise ship visitor numbers took a hit during the nationwide recession. But since then, numbers have been building back up.

And as long as visitors keep cruising, Southeast summer tourism employment will continue to climb.