As interest in Alaska grows and cruise ship companies are bringing more people to the 49th state, Petersburg could be a destination for a little bit larger cruise ships in the next few years. A company called Viking Cruises is exploring possibilities for future Alaska port calls and met with officials in Petersburg this summer.
Viking is a Norwegian company, founded in 1997 and offers river and ocean cruises. It’s ocean cruise ships are 745 feet long and have capacity for 930 people. Viking is offering voyages between Vancouver, British Columbia and Seward in 2019 and 2020.
Dave Berg is co-owner of travel agency Viking Travel, no relation to the cruise company of the same name. He’s also the local representative for Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska, which provides support for the companies.
“For 2020 they’re looking at changing around their itinerary a little bit,” Berg said. “And they came to a number of cities in Southeast Alaska and around Alaska to determine the suitability of that particular community to their ship.”
A cruise line representative met with Berg, other community members and borough officials about making stops here. At an assembly meeting in early September, Mayor Mark Jensen noted the company’s inquiry and hoped for a discussion in the community about it.
“I think it’s a big enough ship with potentially 900 passengers coming to town, it’s going to require public involvement in that big of an influx of people if that happens in our town,” Jensen said.
The ships are too large to come into the Wrangell Narrows but would anchor in Frederick Sound and lighter people to port, or take them to shore in a smaller boat. Viking Travel’s Berg said only two-thirds of the passengers normally disembark when it requires a lightering trip. Still that could mean about 600 passengers in town for those visits.
“So it would be feasible to see you know that number of people come into to town and be pretty much spread out in the community doing a number of different things like going over to the glacier or doing some helicopter flight seeing or fixed-wing flight seeing, some walking tours,” Berg said. “So we looked a number of different impacts on the community including the lack of public restrooms.”
Berg characterized it as a fact finding visit by the cruise line. He said since the visit he hasn’t heard back from that company about whether Petersburg would be included in their 2020 sailings.
Petersburg hasn’t seen that size of vessel or that number of passengers in port before. Other large ships have anchored in Frederick Sound occasionally but with fewer passengers. Berg pointed out the benefits he sees from more cruise visitors in the community including cruise ship head tax revenue from the state and a boost for main street businesses. He explained that local businesses and workers could offer tours and information for those passengers.
“We talked about having some docents, some guides that are on the corners of the streets to direct people and answer questions about our history and living in Petersburg and about the fishing industry,” Berg explained. “We might have some dock walk guides to take 15-20 people at a time around the dock. We could get probably as many as 80 spots available in the morning and afternoon to go to the glacier on a number of jet boats employed here from local vendors or vendors from Wrangell that would come over for the day. They probably would want to do some fishing.”
Larger ships are unable to dock in downtown Petersburg because of the shallow depth of the Wrangell Narrows. And the community has been wary about rapid growth in the visitor industry. A survey done by a local tourism committee in 1986 found many community members favored going slow with development of the industry and focusing instead on improvements for locals.
Viking Cruises did not immediately respond to an email request for comment about its plans.