The CEO of a small, high-end cruise ship company this week outlined plans to base one of its ships in Petersburg and offer roundtrip tours beginning and ending here. Dan Blanchard with UnCruise Adventures told attendees at the Petersburg Chamber of Commerce annual banquet Saturday, February 24 about the opportunity to draw more small ships to this port.
Blanchard used to live in Petersburg and worked for Alaska Sightseeing/Cruise West for 14 years. That company ran the cruise ship Sheltered Seas based in Petersburg for about two decades, but ended those trips in 2006.
Starting this year his company UnCruise will be offering eight day, seven night tours on its 120-foot long, 22 passenger ship the Safari Quest, starting and ending in Petersburg. Passengers on those trips will visit LeConte Glacier, Admiralty Island, Kake and Kuiu Island. Those cruises are priced this year at just under 75-hundred dollars per person.
Blanchard told the audience his company chose Petersburg because of its proximity to wilderness areas. “And this route basically takes advantage of wilderness areas where we can only put two groups of 12 in per day,” he said. “So the Safari Quest fits perfect for that and it fits Petersburg in so many ways, not just because of geographics but because of airlifts and a whole bunch other things.”
Blanchard explained UnCruise’s passengers are active, looking for adventure and seeking more hands on contact with the outdoors. He gave examples of the company’s excursions in the area, offering hiking at Cascade Creek in Thomas Bay, or caving on Prince of Wales. He also said one of the biggest draws for cruise passengers is abundant wildlife.
“You know quite frankly we in Southeast are super blessed,” Blanchard said. “We’re blessed not only with an abundance of wilderness but wildlife that has come back screaming. How many of you saw sea otters prior to 1991 anywhere in Southeast? We saw our first in 1990. Off the coast, right now there are thousands, thousands. I know they don’t do much for the crabbing industry. My favorite places that I used to crab, whoa, not so much. The reality is there’s balance coming back.”
Blanchard said the Safari Quest is switching its home port to Petersburg this year and will be captained by his daughter Denee. He also highlighted the economic impact of having a ship start and end its trips here.
“It has to be the place where we buy our supplies, where we buy our fuel, where all the gifts come from,” said Blanchard. “That comes to 1857 dollars per guest, many times that of a large cruise ship that’s just coming in for a short period. So Petersburg, just from a little 22 passenger boat over 15 weeks, is gonna see 613,000 dollars spent by that boat and that guest this summer. That’s gonna increase in 2019 when we go from 15 to 17 sails.”
Blanchard made the argument that Petersburg should be seeking to have other small ships homeported here, instead of implementing a passenger fee, or head tax. He said port taxes and fees for use of public land can add up to 350 per person, per trip.
“So my message is, there’s always the simple way. The head tax is easy, it’s an easy flag to raise. We’ve all dealt with it, it sounds good but the bigger pull, the bigger job is can you get these yachts? There are many 12 passenger, 16-passenger, 30-passenger yachts and small ships throughout Southeast that really don’t want to be in Juneau, they don’t want to be in the hub of activity. So I would just throw that out as a suggestion because I think in the long run that’s going to be a lot more meaningful.”
Petersburg’s mayor and most of the assembly attended the presentation but were not swayed by the argument. Just days later they gave final approval to a $5 a head passenger fee the borough will start collecting in 2019, based on a similar fee collected in Juneau.
Blanchard did recommend following Juneau’s lead on another front. With tourism numbers expected to grow, he suggested following the Capital City in implementing tourism best practices for companies to respond to complaints and improve impacts on the community. He also talked about his company’s efforts to expand the visitor season into April, with hopes of adding attracting more passengers and other companies to the region during what can be one of the drier months of the year.