About a million cruise-ship passengers from around the world sailed through Southeast’s Inside Passage this season. Some ships continued on to Whittier, Kodiak and even Unalaska.
The overall numbers are around the same as the previous two years. But destinations and businesses saw visitors willing to spend more, due to the improving national economy.
If you want to see tourists in action, Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier is the place to go. About half the state’s million cruise-ship visitors came to view the rock-strewn ice this season, significantly more than the previous year.
All those people presented a challenge when glacial outburst floods, called jökulhlaups, raised the level of Mendenhall Lake. Jökulhlaups happen when ice dams float or break, allowing a rapid escape of water.
They’ve usually happened only once per season.
“Last year for the first time we had two of them in one year. And then this year they turned out to be weekly. And it just caught us all by surprise,” says John Neary, director of the U.S. Forest Service’s Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.
He says the floods hit the area’s most popular trail, which follows the lake’s shoreline to the base of a large, dramatic waterfall.
“As soon as the water level goes up, which it did about weekly, we had to close the trail. Not just to prevent wet feet, but actually to prevent people who are going around making side trails,” he says.
He says those side trails can damage the shore and disrupt nesting seabirds.
It was also a busy season for a Ketchikan attraction that puts tourists on a modified “Deadliest Catch” crabber.
“This season was a lot busier than it was last year. There were a lot more cruise ship passengers coming up, so we had a lot more guests with the potential to sell to,” says Shauna Lee, executive director of the Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour.
She says unusually good weather helped draw customers … until the back end of the season.
“We’ve had some really horrific days. But the beginning of the season put everybody in a good mood and a lot more guests coming into town certainly helped a lot as well,” she says.
Lee says the summer’s tours sold out months in advance. In fact, it was the best season in the company’s history.
“I felt like people had money to spend. They were happy to spend it. They were happy to be on vacation and not stressing,” she says.
“We had more customers. And probably more importantly, we had more customers wanting to do longer, more expensive tours,” says John Dunlap, vice president of Allen Marine Tours.
The Sitka-based company runs sightseeing and wildlife-watching catamarans in Ketchikan and Juneau, as well as its hometown.
He says people were willing to spend more money this season because the nation’s economy has improved. That contrasts to late last decade, when fewer tourists sailed north and those who did spent less.
Dunlap’s also seen a shift in the type of passenger they serve in recent years.
“So people are just in general more knowledgeable. They tend to study about where they’re going and that’s a lot of fun. They really stretch you to have more information for them – good information for them,” he says.
He says customers these days also want to know their excursions have minimal impact on the environment.
That’s also the case in Petersburg, where retired troller Grant Trask shows visitors around the docks.
He introduces them to commercial fishermen and talks about gear groups, seasons and species caught. He says some ask about sustainability. A few want to argue about it.
“I can tell them that we have a lot of fish in Alaska. And that when they are going to be eating an Alaska fish, wherever they live, it’s not going to be the last one because we have such good management of our resources,” he says.
Trask and his wife also run Das Hagedorn Haus bed and breakfast. Like others we talked to, his business picked up this season, as well as last.
He says he’s noticed another trend, the growing diversity of Alaska tourists.
“We’re used to American and Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders. But we have folks from Europe quite a bit more in our little town. So my last group just a couple weeks ago was mainly folks from Belgium,” he says.
That’s also the case back at Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier.
Walking up the rock steps to the visitor center, Director John Neary says far more cruise-ship passengers are visiting from Europe, Asia and India.
“Also more kids this year. That’s pretty exciting for us. It used to be just Disney Fridays. But now, we’ve got a lot of kids on other days. I think the demographics are changing, maybe with rising incomes. More families are able to afford get on the ships,” he says.