KODIAK — Today, Kodiak’s last cruise ship of 2018 will dock at Pier II. Holland America’s 955-foot MS Westerdam, which will bring roughly 1,900 passengers and 800 crew members to the island for the day, is the second largest cruise ship ever to visited Kodiak. The largest was the Princess Cruises’ 965ft MS Coral Princess, which brought a similar number of passengers and closer to 1000 crew members to Kodiak on Sep 28. Next year, however the ante is being upped.
According to a draft schedule, on May 15, 2019, Cunard Line’s MS Queen Elizabeth will visit Kodiak. While the same length as the Coral Princess, the Queen Elizabeth has a larger tonnage and the capacity to hold even more passengers and crew.
“That’ll be the largest vessel that Kodiak has ever seen,” said Aimee Williams, director of Discover Kodiak.
That is not the only record that will be broken next year. 31 cruise ships, the most that Kodiak has ever seen, are currently scheduled to arrive in 2019 – a substantial increase from the 19 that visited in 2018.
“We are gaining a couple of new cruise lines, people that have never been to Kodiak,” said Williams.
According to Williams, “word is getting out” about the experiences that coastal Alaska can offer a tourist. She said that Kodiak in particular boasts an authenticity, due to things like its relative lack of souvenir shops and the proximity of the seafood processors to town, which appeals to outsiders.
“People on those ships like the fact that they get to walk into a city that’s not a city,” said Williams. “I think that’s a really neat thing about Kodiak is it’s not built up like other cities are.
“Visitors get to experience a city that looks how it does when they’re not there,” she added.
In June, according to Williams, there will be one three day period during which Kodiak will have three cruise ships in a row. Last year, Larsen Bay had its first ever cruise ship visit. Williams said that, while there are two stops scheduled from that same vessel in June and July of next year, she is currently unsure whether it will be making a stop in Larsen Bay.
Williams went on to extoll the economic benefits that the cruise ships provide by bringing customers to local businesses – especially those in the downtown area.
“The influx of people who come through downtown, helps all our businesses,” she said, noting that local artists, too, reap the benefits with extra visitors attending the BearTown Market (located in Kodiak Convention Center).
“The museums get huge boosts,” said Williams. “All of the people who are doing shore excursions have a more solid customer base.”
“There’s definitely an impact and the city is making money off them being here,” she added.
In the midst of cruise ship season back in May, the Kodiak Daily Mirror spoke to a number of local business owners, who confirmed this.
“I wouldn’t be in business if it weren’t for the cruise ships,” Kelly Bennett, owner and proprietor of Norman’s Fine Gifts, said at the time. “When they cancel a ship it ticks me off – when they can’t dock or something … That’s quite a bit of money out of my pocket.”
Likewise, Dake Schmidt of Memory Makers, a tour company that provides sightseeing trips up and down the road system, said over time he’s become more reliant on the cruise ship customers.
“Years ago when I started, there was very little dependency on the cruise ships,” he said. “Now, that’s changed.”
Memory Makers is one of the shore excursion companies that Williams mentioned. It offers tours of the island, in six-passenger travel vans, with whatever time window Schmidt is given.
A three-hour tour includes a drive up Pillar Mountain, to Fort Abercrombie, and to the Coast Guard base; A four-hour trip allows for a longer drive down to the American River, and a five-hour trip includes a ride to Fossil Beach and the Pacific Spaceport Complex - Alaska.
“It’s my bread and butter,” Schmidt said. “You get paid for the day, and you’re generally done by two o’clock. They’re nice people, and they love Kodiak.”
While local businesses welcome increased numbers of customers, not all residents feel the same about their town being flooded with increasingly more tourists. Williams acknowledged this, but said that Kodiak will likely not start receiving the same number of cruise ships as a city like Juneau.
“I think that everyone needs time to adjust,” she said. “I don’t ever see Kodiak getting multiple cruise ships in one day.”
Beyond this, the increasing number of cruise ships does raise a question over the use of Pier II. While the pier is open for public use, in August of this year commercial freight operator American President Lines came to an agreement with the City of Kodiak to lease a little over 23,000 square feet of the pier for container staging and a portable marine office. While APL initially estimated that it would use the pier for two barges per month, city manager Mike Tvenge said that the firm is “currently averaging three times that.”
“This has only been going on with the APL barge for two months,” said Harbormaster Derrik Magnuson. “This is the busiest time for APL. It’s a little more traffic than we anticipated. But so far it’s been do-able.”
“Next year will be more of a challenge, because of the increased cruise ship activity,” he added.
Magnuson said that the early availability of the cruise ship schedule makes it easier to manage the use of the pier, despite the increase in usership.
APL’s lease agreement gives the firm non-preferential use of the pier, which means vessels such as NOAA’s Oscar Dyson ship, Alaska Marine Highway System ferries, Petro Star fuel barges and cruise ships all have first priority. One concern with the increased use of the pier is that commercial fishermen, who use the pier to load and unload equipment like nets, may be squeezed out of the equation.
Magnuson said that he is aware of this concern and is taking measures to ensure that fishermen still have space.
“We sat down with APL and had a meeting the other day, because there has been some issues with where the APL barge was and where the trucks were coming in,” said Magnuson. “It wasn’t leaving very much room for the fishermen to use the dock.”
He went on to say that the city has been talking with APL to discuss “changing its footprint” to ensure that “as much space as possible” is left for fishermen whenever there is a barge docked.
“We worked out we needed to shrink APL’s footprint a little bit,” he said. “We’re trying to make everyone happy and work within our system and still make room for the fishermen, because the they are the lifeblood of Kodiak. Without the fishermen, APL doesn’t have fish to ship.”
Another concern for local residents is the level of pollution that increasing numbers of cruise ships could cause in Kodiak.
In September, the Associated Press reported that more than 134 people have made calls to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s cruise ship hotline, so far this year. According to the A.P., the state collected $75,000 in fines for two ships that violated air quality standards last year; this year, however, it’s already sent nine violation notices for ships in Juneau, Skagway, Haines, Seward and Ketchikan (which is where most of the violations occured). Officials said four violations were found on Holland America Line ships, Princess Cruises had two, Royal Caribbean had two, and the Norwegian Cruise Line had one.
The agency that monitors the waste emissions and effluence of cruise ships is DEC’s Commercial Passenger Vessel Environmental Compliance Program. In an interview with the Kodiak Daily Mirror, Ed White, the manager of DEC’s Commercial Passenger Vessel Environmental Compliance Program, explained that all cruise ships are required to register with the program and provide information on the vessel and its planned route. All vessels are required to get permits if they are discharging waste into state waters and abide by state and federal air quality regulations.
“What we do from the air side, is we have a contractor who goes to several communities and does visual readings of the smokestack,” he said, explaining that air quality regulations are based on the opacity of emissions. “For wastewater, we take samples.”
For large cruise ships (of over 250 passengers), more than half will have a CPVEC-contracted ocean ranger aboard for at least part of the journey. These are marine engineers that monitor, among other things, anything that’s a state or federal environmental protection rule, including wastewater and air emissions.
“Kodiak probably gets several ocean rangers a year, because of the fact that ships that go to Kodiak often spend more time in Alaskan waters, so they’re a priority,” said White.
White said that while the majority of cruise ships abide by state and federal regulations, an increased number of ships could be having a cumulatively greater impact.
“That’s something we are looking into, especially with the increase,” he said. “Some communities are getting six cruise ships a day.”
As a result, the state is looking at conducting a pilot project in Juneau early next year to analyse, not just the impact of an increased number of cruise ships, but the infrastructure that is popping up to service those tourists.
“Specifically the activity relating to tourism and cruise ships being here, so things like more buses, more trains,” said White.
According to White, the last time the DEC conducted a study like this was 18 years ago, at which point cruise ships “were not impacting the overall air quality.”
White said much has changed since then.
“That’s part of the reason we think we’re getting more public complaints over air emissions,” he said. “The ships are bigger, they’re using new technology. Things have changed considerably.”
White said the state will be engaging in public outreach during the pilot project.