When looking out from the observation deck on the fifteenth floor of the Norwegian Bliss cruise ship, the biggest cruise ship ever to set sail for Alaska, the city of Ketchikan by comparison seems quite small to Katherine Tatsuda.
“We’re about even, about even with the hill over there. We’re kind of even with upper main street,” Tatsuda said. “It’s amazing to think they’re docking a full city here.”
It really is like an entire extra city docking here: 4000 passengers and measuring more than one thousand feet long, this ship is twice the size of other cruise ships in Alaska. Cruise staff is taking local officials on a tour of the world inside.
There are water slides, a go-kart track and even a space-themed laser tag game on the top deck. The
Bliss is extravagant. But it is also specially made for Alaska.
“This ship was purposefully built for Alaska. You will see that on our route, but up on deck 15 we have a giant observation lounge that the previous sisters did not have to see the wildlife,” Captain Steffan Bengtsson said.
Ketchikan City Council Member Julie Isom sees the Norwegian Bliss not just as a new opportunity, but as a sign of how far tourism has carried the city since the local pulp mill closed in the ‘90s.
“The tourism industry is the biggest, and it has been for five years….it has been main money. That has been what has paid the bills,” Isom said.
The Norwegian Bliss is the first of potentially multiple mega-cruise ships to sail into Alaska in the future. And bigger ships mean new challenges.
“This is really a test year. Just a pilot year. We’ll find out a lot of things we don’t have with the ships we normally have here. It’s just gonna be different having that many passengers get off of one ship. We’ll learn how to navigate them through town coming off of one gangway plank,” Isom said.
The council is finalizing plans to expand berths to accommodate docking these massive ships. There’s also a buoy in the channel marking an underwater rocky pinnacle that makes navigating dangerous for cruise ships. City officials hope to blow it up by next year.
Despite these challenges, city officials are optimistic about what the Bliss means for the future. During a ceremony where commemorative plaques were exchanged, Vice-Mayor Bob Sivertsen thanked the cruise staff for making a cruise ship built for Alaska, something long-time Ketchikan tourism promoter Len Laurance predicted.
“He predicted over a million passengers would come to Ketchikan. But he also predicted that once the cruise ship industry built a ship specifically for Alaska, Ketchikan would become a destination spot. So thank you for that,” Sivertsen said.
And according to Matt Hagan of First Bank, the future most likely means at least one thing: more money.
“Every person they bring up here spends an average of $160 dollars per day in Ketchikan. So when a cruise ship brings up all of these people, you know, it’s significant spending in Ketchikan. So it’s great for the economy here,” Hagan said.