Ships filling up fast as Alaska anticipates a record year

Ships filling up fast as Alaska anticipates a record year

Since cruise passengers have clearly been enamored with Alaska for the past year, the state expects record tourism in 2017, but cruise agents say despite the “cold rush” there’s still room available “here and there” on ships this summer.

As for demand, “It’s very, very strong, and prices are up,” said Rich Skinner, owner of Cruise Holidays of Woodinville, Wash., near Seattle. But at the same time, he noted, cruise lines have also increased capacity this year.

“There is still some space availability,” Skinner said. “In places here and there, even very close in, you can find spots on various ships.”

For example, Skinner said he recently booked an inside cabin on a seven-day Norwegian Cruise Line sailing departing July 8 for $749 per person plus tax. He estimated balcony cabins were running about $1,599 per person.

However, there are a very limited number of higher-end cabins, such as suites and minisuites, he said, and what inventory remains tends to be found toward the front and back of ships on lower decks.

Last year, the number of cruise passengers to Alaska exceeded 1 million for the first time since 2009.

Visit Alaska said the number of overall visitors to the state is expected to reach a record 1.8 million this year. The number of cruise visitors is expected to rise from 1.02 million in 2016 to 1.06 million, according to a CLIA forecast.

One of the drivers for cruise tourism to Alaska is that it is perceived as a very safe destination, especially in contrast to Europe, another big summer cruise market.

“A lot of people maybe don’t feel like they want to leave the country,” said Gail Sinito, president of GTS Vacations in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. “You’ve got that perception. So a lot of those people are booking in advance. Usually people book by the first of the year.”

Sinito said cruises in Alaska that are longer than seven days or that include a land-based add-on tend to fill in advance because of the expense and because cabins will be harder to find than on shorter cruises.

“There’s probably quite a bit of availability if you just want to do the cruise, the more affordable option out of Seattle,” Sinito said. “But you don’t get all the way up to Anchorage and Seward. And of course the best accommodations, the family accommodations, those have been gone for a long time.”

John Lane, co-owner of Cruise Escapes in Dallas, said he has also found availability for this season.

“I just booked somebody this week for next week,” Lane said. “I was very surprised. It was actually a single, and they went and got on Holland America Line for a very reasonable rate for a single.”

Lane said he checked with Princess Cruises and Celebrity Cruises, which also had availability but at rates that were $800 to $1,000 more expensive.

“Holland America seemed to have a really good last-minute deal,” he said.

Lane said the July 2 departure might be an anomaly, since “a lot of the dates tend to be pretty well picked over and pretty full.”

One thing that is helping is that cruise lines, responding to terrorist events in France, Turkey and elsewhere in Europe last year, added capacity to Alaska in 2017.

For example, Holland America Line added a seventh ship to the Alaska market in 2017. Seabourn also returned to Alaska this year for the first time in 15 years.

That is expected to continue into 2018, when the largest ship ever to hit the Alaska market, the 4,250-passenger Norwegian Bliss, will start sailing from Seattle.

“I do like the idea that we’re going to get some brand new equipment,” said Cruise Holidays’ Skinner. “We’ve been kind of the second tier of product because they always send the first tier to Europe where yields have been higher. But I think yields in Alaska are better than in Europe these days.”

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