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Haines cruise visitor numbers up as docking fee waiver goes into effect

A Holland America cruise ship docked in Haines in 2015. (Emily Files)

Two years ago, Haines officials decided to make a financial sacrifice in an effort to increase cruise ship traffic. The assembly approved a three-year program to give a 50 percent docking fee discount to cruise ships tying up at Port Chilkoot Dock. The waiver program went into effect this year, and Haines’ tourism director says it’s showing results.

“We’re definitely on the increase,” said outgoing tourism director Leslie Ross.

Haines’ first cruise ship arrives on Sunday (5/21). It kicks off a season that will see about 46,000 cruise passengers. That’s about an 8,000-person increase from last year. There are about 20 more port calls this summer compared to 2016.

“I can’t say it’s completely from the [docking fee] incentive that we’re offering,” Ross said. “But I think that incentive joined with our personal visitations to the cruise lines in Miami and Seattle made a huge difference.”

The docking discounts this year add up to about $54,000 that is not going into borough coffers. But other revenues, like sales tax, from the increased number of ships should help offset that loss.

(Courtesy Leslie Ross/Haines Borough)

Most of the new ships are on the small side. They include the 450-passenger Seabourn Sojourn and 200-passenger The World. Ross says next year, UnCruise plans to add Haines to its list of destinations.

“I think Haines is very attractive to those smaller and mid-size ships and I think they’re a great fit for Haines,” Ross said. “They’re looking for the more exclusive ports and looking at that more adventure excursion and the arts and culture.”

There are also four bigger ships making port calls in Haines, including two Holland America vessels on their regular Wednesday schedule. The two largest ships are also the first to arrive.

“There’s no practice run for us,” Ross said. “We have to be ready to go.”

The 2,500-passenger Radiance of the Sea makes its only stop in Haines this Sunday, May 21. The Grand Princess makes its first of three planned visits on May 23. Ross hopes the bigger ships will make more frequent visits in upcoming years.

The close to 50,000 passengers expected in Haines is dwarfed in comparison to its closest neighbor, Skagway, which will see about 800,000 cruise visitors.

Ross says Haines’ proximity to Skagway is actually one of the biggest draws for cruise companies.

“The access to railroad is huge,” Ross said. “It’s a huge attraction for people coming to the area. I like to look at that as an asset to Haines.”

Ross is referring to the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, a wildly popular shore excursion in Skagway.

But she says it’s also tough for Haines to be situated right between two major cruise ports.

“Haines is seen as a secondary destination to the larger destinations of Skagway and Juneau.”

Ross says dealing with cruise traffic is a balancing act between the economic benefit of more ships and the desire to keep Haines’ distinction as a quieter, more intimate experience.

“We want to maintain our town as a more intimate destination for cruise passengers and independent travelers,” Ross said. “We have to have that balance.”

Things are looking good for independent travelers as well. Ross says the Alaska Marine Highway ferry schedule for Haines is much improved over last year.

“We are back to our day ferry and only the occasional day when we don’t have the link to Skagway,” she said.

Ross hopes the independent traveler and cruise visitor numbers continue to rise.

But since her last day as tourism director is in early June, it’ll be up to her successor to help carry the momentum forward.

Emily Files, KHNS

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