Seward plans to welcome back its first cruise ships since 2019

A sunny day near the water
A few people enjoying the Seward coastline in August 2021, the second straight season of no cruise ships. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Seward plans to welcome back its first cruise ships this summer since 2019.

But there’s a lot that could happen between now and May 9, when the first ship is slated to dock in town.

“I’m going to try to remember how that works,” said Kat Sorensen, executive director at the Seward Chamber of Commerce.

She said she’s cautiously optimistic about the return of cruises. Seward was burned in 2021 due to COVID-19-related restrictions from Canada.

“Last year, we had a first cruise ship that was supposed to arrive in Seward,” Sorensen said. “And the day kept getting pushed back or canceled until, all of a sudden, the season was over. And it’s like, ‘OK, we’re not getting any cruise ships this year.’”

Seward’s economy relies heavily on tourism from cruises. And the effects of two canceled seasons in a row extended throughout the region — cruises support an estimated 20,000 jobs in Southcentral every season.

Last year, Norwegian Cruise Line sent Seward and several other communities $1 million each in an attempt to fill in some of the gaps left behind by the no-show.

But the season wasn’t a total loss in Seward. Independent travelers still filled Seward’s streets last year, said Amy Haddow, a Seward-based vessel manager with Cruise Lines Agencies of Alaska. Her job is to connect the ships with services on land like customs and groceries.

She said Seward bustled with visitors from Alaska last year, but also from the Lower 48 and overseas. That’s reflected in Seward’s 2021 sales tax revenue, which rebounded and surpassed 2019 numbers.

Haddow also said Seward is different from communities in Southeast in that it’s typically the first or final destination on passengers’ trips. Many go straight between the bus or train and the ship.

“The vast majority of passengers leave Seward,” she said.

So even if some of the businesses down at the dock are impacted by quiet seasons, many local stores and restaurants may not be as hurt when cruise ships don’t come into town.

Cruises or not, Seward relies on an influx of seasonal workers each summer.

Finding housing for those workers is always an issue, but Sorensen says it might be especially tough this year.

“And usually we start seeing posts on our Seward housing Facebook page around February or March,” she said. “But this year we’ve been seeing them since November, of people desperate for a place to live for the summer.”

Still, Sorensen and Haddow hope ships are a go for this summer. The schedule is chock full of voyages, from May through October. Sorensen says the chamber is operating with the assumption, for now, that things will be normal.

But she won’t say anything with complete certainty, at least not until the first ship of the season pulls up to the dock.

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