A small Southeast Alaska Native village has won a prestigious international tourism award. Even though Alaska’s 2020 summer cruise season was cancelled because of COVID-19, the Icy Strait cruise ship port near Hoonah, 35 miles west of Juneau, has put Alaska high on the radar as the cruise industry plans its recovery.
Icy Strait was selected Oct. 8 as “Port of the Year” in the Seatrade Cruise Awards, the industry’s major award program. The Alaska destination beat out its rivals in the finalist competition, Dover, in the U.K., and St. Petersburg, Russia.
Fourteen independent cruise company judges selected Icy Strait mainly because of the way it embraced Alaska Native culture in its programs as well as employment of Huna Totem’s Tlingit shareholders for 80 percent of its workforce. Icy Bay’s $6.8 million annual economic contribution to the nearby Native community of Hoonah, where Huna Totem Corp. is also headquartered, was a major consideration.
Hoonah has about 750 residents while Huna Totem has 1,450 shareholders.
“This is the first time in Seatrade’s 14-year award history for an Alaska company to be recognized and nominated as a finalist,” and now to have won, Russell Dick, President CEO of Huna Totem Corp. said in a press release.
Icy Strait was also the only U.S. cruise destination to be nominated for the award, Dick said.
A key point in the award was Icy Strait’s blend of natural scenery with the cultural values of Icy Strait’s Tlingit shareholders. Icy Strait’s docks and upland facilities are designed to maximize natural views of shoreline, trees and mountains.
“We have a ‘no visible buses from the ship’ policy,” said Mickey Richardson, Icy Strait’s marketing director.
“With two gondola systems, travelers quietly move through the treetops from dock to port, or to the top of nearby Hoonah Mountain at 1,600 feet, while never meeting a car, van or bus along the way,” Richardson said.
Dick said he thinks Icy Strait’s model of blending local culture and history with nature is a model that can be duplicated in many small communities, particularly aboriginal communities. “Our model encourages the perpetuation of Native arts, music and culture while maintaining the fabric of the community,” he said.
“The weaving of Native values into the daily operations of a tourism destination creates a world-class experience for visitors. I believe this is the future of the travel industry,” Dick said.
Hoonah is a traditional Southeast fishing community and although it is near Icy Strait’s docks and visitor facilities Huna Totem is careful to keep the visitor facilities apart from the community.
Huna Totem and other Alaska tourism operators are now cautiously optimistic that an Alaska cruise season can happen in 2021. The corporation has a lot riding on it, with about $105 million invested in Icy Straits from an initial 2004 investment and after completing a second ship dock in late 2019, Dick said.
Major Alaska cruise operators like Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Lines and Carnival Corp. subsidiaries Holland America and Princess Cruises are taking reservations for the summer. So far consumer interest in cruise voyages appear strong, particularly for Alaska.
Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, CEO of Celebrity Cruises, said advance reservations for Alaska are the strongest among its 2021 cruise offerings, possibly because of pent-up demand after virus-related cancellation of the 2020 season. Dick said what’s attractive about Alaska is the outdoor and open-air image of the state, which appeals to people after being cooped up in pandemic shutdowns.
An important signal for Alaskans, however, will be whether the winter cruise season can get underway safely in December and January in the Lower 48. Four recent cruises in the Mediterranean went wel, Lutoff-Perlo said.
Companies are working on COVID-19 safety protocols with the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention and if the planned winter U.S. cruises to the Caribbean and other warm-water destinations come off safely it bodes well for the Alaska cruise season which normally kicks off in late spring, she said.
Although this year was a shut-out, tourism in normal years is a major industry for Alaska, although it is seasonal. A new McDowell Group tourism report, not yet released in final, details the industry’s fast growth through 2019, a reflection of what could have continued this year had the COVID-29 virus not come along.
Between May and September 2019 about 2.21 million visitors came to Alaska mostly for tourism. About 1.3 million of these, or 60 percent, came on cruise ships. The report details dramatic growth in visitors of 44 percent since 2010, or 1.53 million that year to 2.2 million in 2019. That year’s was 9 percent up from 2018. The year 2020 was to have seen another increase, although it didn’t happen.
Meanwhile, Alaska’s seasonal tour-related businesses, at least those that opened, got through the 2020 summer as best they could. Many firms in the Interior-Southcentral corridor, including Fairbanks, Denali and Homer, reported their business was about half of normal year levels.
Rates for lodging were down and Alaskans took advantage of that, which helped many operators get through the poor season.