The cruise ship Le Soléal heads south in the Wrangell Narrows near Petersburg in June of 2016. (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

The first cruise ships to stop in Petersburg are due in less than a month. Like the rest of Alaska, Petersburg is expecting to see an increase in cruise visitors in 2019. There’s also one new ship expected to tie up on the waterfront and a new fee for cruise passengers.

Dave Berg of Viking Travel works with cruise companies visiting Petersburg. He said, like the rest of the state, the number of cruise stops here is on the rise in 2019.

“We’ve got 146 scheduled cruise ship stops which is up from about 115 from last year,” Berg said. “Some of the big changes are that the National Geographic Venture will be coming. That’s a new ship that they launched last fall. It’s a sister ship to the National Geographic Quest at about 100 passengers, but a very nice vessel. They’ll be coming a full 18 or 19 stops this year so that’s one of the big increases that we’ve got.”

That new ship has its first scheduled stop in Petersburg in mid May. But the port will see the first visit of the season April 21st. Berg said Tuesdays and Thursdays will be the busy days for visitors this year. UnCruise Adventures ship the Safari Quest will be starting its Petersburg-based voyages on Fridays. Those offerings started last year but they wont continue in 2020.

“Well we’ve heard good feedback from the company,” Berg said. “Unfortunately there some issues with passengers moving back and forth and I think as a result of that feedback that UnCruise will be pulling the Safari Quest from the Petersburg turns next year, so we won’t see that. But we will see a couple of new ships coming next year kind of to replace that.”

As for this year, there are a couple of other larger small cruise ships scheduled to stop here; both have visited before. The 466-foot Le Soléal owned by the French company Ponant is returning. That has capacity for up to 264 people. And the Silversea’s ship Silver Explorer is 354 feet long and has space for up to 144 passengers. Those two boats will be anchoring in the Wrangell Narrows or Frederick Sound and lightering passengers into port. Some smaller cruise ships will also continue to tie up at Petersburg’s drive down dock throughout the summer.

Petersburg also will be charging a new $5-a-head passenger fee for cruise ships tying up in Petersburg harbors or lightering in passengers to the harbors. That fee won’t be charged for ships that make stops elsewhere in the Petersburg borough.

Borough finance director Jody Tow said letters went out to cruise companies late last year.

“They need to fill out an application and then remit forms each time they have a cruise ship come in,” Tow said. “They have to email us their manifest and then followed by payment of $5 per passenger.”

For cruise ship and charter companies seeking more information, there’s a section on the borough’s website with information about the new marine passenger fee. It’s only charged on ships with more than 20 overnight berths. The money will go into a special borough fund and the assembly can decide annually what to spend it on. Those decisions will be impacted by a recent settlement of a lawsuit between Juneau and the cruise industry.

“Before when it (the decision in the lawsuit) first came out they said basically you had to spend the money on something that touches the ship,” Tow said. “And so now they’ve come up with an agreement where it can cover Juneau’s crossing guards, their police safety, additional police and safety, downtown restroom maintenance visitor information services, increased EMS services, additional trash collection, lots of different things. So, it seems like as long as we can come to an agreement with the cruise agencies I think that we’ll be just fine.”

Petersburg is only expecting about $30,000 a year, small change compared to the fees that come into larger communities. Viking Travel’s Berg said no companies have pulled out of Petersburg because of the new passenger fee.

“There’s been very little comment from the cruise lines regarding this and I think that they understand that there’s a pay to play process that happens in any Alaska community,” Berg said. “And as long as we have plans to spend that money on cruise ship infrastructure I don’t think we’re going to get in any trouble with it. I think the important part is going to bring, when we do plan to spend the money that we collect, when it comes time, that we include the cruise lines in that process so that they can make some comments about the infrastructure that we plan.”

Some common improvements mentioned include public restrooms and covered areas for visitors.