History of the Alaska cruise industry

Tourists have cruised north to Alaska to sightsee for more than a century. The business was pioneered by Pacific Coast Steamship Co. of San Francisco in the 1880s. Pacific launched monthly voyages to Alaska and Alaska’s beauty has captivated tourists ever since. Alaska will greet an estimated more than 1.36 million cruise visitors this year, thanks to the growing interest in cruising and the support of Alaska residents and its elected officials.

Alaska cruise ship passengers


Source: Cruise Lines Agencies of Alaska
*2019 number estimated.

Here are highlights over the past few years:


Alaska enjoyed a record peak of cruise visitors in 2008, when 1,032,074 cruise passengers sailed Alaska waters. Despite a strong global cruise industry, however, the next two years saw a decline in Alaska cruise ship passengers and revenue, due in part to a citizens’ initiative that significantly raised the cost of coming to Alaska through the imposition of four new taxes, including a $50 per person head tax, and new environmental regulations.


In early 2009, it was announced that Alaska would lose three cruise ships and approximately 142,000 passengers in the 2010 season – a 17 percent decline in cruise business after 30 years of growth. That loss equated to:

  • $165 million/year in lost revenues, cruise line purchases, passenger spending, jobs and payroll
  • 51,000 fewer crew visits to Alaska ports
  • 1,800 fewer full-time jobs for Alaskans


In April 2010, the Alaska State Legislature passed SB 312, paving the way to a comeback for the state’s cruise businesses. The bill adjusted the cruise passenger excise tax from $46 to $34.50, with a credit for head taxes charged by other ports.

Reducing operating costs through adopting a more competitive tax structure has been key to putting Alaska back on a path for growth, and SB 312 had a swift, positive effect on Alaska’s visitor industry.


While cruise passengers were down in 2009 and 2010, signs of improvement began to appear in 2011. Disney and Oceania added Alaska cruises to their itineraries, along with four new ships – Disney Wonder, Crystal Symphony, Oceania Regatta and Silversea Silver. Nearly 940,000 cruise passengers visited Alaska in 2012.


In 2012, Alaska received approximately 65 percent of all port-of-call cruise passenger visits in the U.S. Passenger and crew onshore spending was an estimated $520 million. The cruise industry in Alaska employed 22,632 residents, contributing $1 billion in total income.


Cruise ship passengers accounted for just over half of the estimated 1.9 million out-of-state visitors who traveled to Alaska between October 2012 and September 2013. The legislature passed SB 80, which allows the Department of Environmental Conservation to permit wastewater discharge from large commercial vessels in a manner consistent with other dischargers.


Some 51 percent of Alaska’s record high of 1.96 million visitors in 2014 came to the Last Frontier aboard a cruise ship. Travel Leaders Group says Alaska cruises topped visits to Las Vegas as America’s top domestic vacation in 2014.


Alaska’s cruise industry continues to fuel tourism in the Last Frontier, but the state still presents challenges for operators. Higher Alaska fuel prices, some of the highest passenger head taxes in the world and increased demand for Asian cruises have impacted Alaska’s worldwide share of cruise visitors. The ships that call on Alaska begin installing super scrubbers, which remove 98 percent of particulates. French luxury yacht company Ponant sends two ships to Alaska.


Alaska continued to see larger ships as 31 vessels made 477 voyages and carried 1,015 visitors. Many of the ships had been retrofitted with exhaust gas cleaning systems that remove more than 98 percent of the particulate matter.


It was another record year for Alaska cruising, with 33 ships calling 497 times, carrying 1.089 passengers. For the first time ever, Ketchikan welcomed its 1 millionth cruise visitor.


The Alaska cruise industry continued to sail to new heights after a record setting year in 2017. In 2018, cruise ships crossing the Gulf of Alaska increased by approximately 20% with projections of a 7% increase in total passengers to the state. Alaska ports experienced larger ships, including the inaugural season of the Norwegian Bliss, the first large ship specially built for Alaska. Windstar returned to the Last Frontier and American Cruise Lines, one of the biggest cruise companies in the U.S., sent its American Constellation, a new coastal cruise ship, to explore Southeast Alaska.