TOURISM
Wet and Wild
New frontiers for cruise ship passengers
By Vanessa Orr
C

ruise ship tourism in Alaska has recovered from the COVID-19 wipeout, and then some. The Alaska Travel Industry Association reports that nearly 1.7 million cruise ship passengers saw the state in summer 2023, up from an estimated 1.2 million in 2022 and higher than the pre-pandemic peak of 1.3 million in 2019.

About 43 percent of Alaska’s visitors come by cruise ship, so the industry is expanding to accommodate the growth. For example, the season started about two-and-a-half weeks earlier in 2023 than in the previous year, and the season extended past mid-October. Cruise companies are also creating new tour packages for passengers to enjoy aboard ship and during port calls.

Shoreside accommodations in Southeast are well developed and getting better every year, so the most room for growth is westward, across the Gulf of Alaska.

Katmai National Park and Preserve
Explore More
Two of the newest offerings come from Princess Cruises, marking its 55th anniversary of sailing in the region. The company, part of the Carnival Corporation family, has seven ships sailing from West Coast ports. From June 8 to August 29, these ships, which carry an average of 3,172 guests each, are participating in thirty-two voyages, which the company packages as “cruisetours.”
Bear 854 Divot and her cub by the water
Bear 854 Divot tends to her spring cub. Katmai’s bears are a world-famous attraction, and so is sailing the Inside Passage, so a new cruise offering bundles both experiences.

Katmai National Park and Preserve

Guests can choose from sixteen northbound “Voyage of the Glaciers” cruises from Vancouver, British Columbia to Whittier aboard Grand Princess, Royal Princess, or Sapphire Princess, or sixteen southbound cruises going the other direction. These cruisetours include a new adventure to Katmai National Park and Preserve, as well as a fifteen-night visit to five of Alaska’s most breathtaking national parks.

“Guests choose Princess more than any other cruise line to set their sights on untamed wilderness, majestic glaciers, close-up wildlife, and Denali,” says Princess Cruises Vice President Lisa Syme, adding that Princess takes more guests to Alaska’s most-visited national park, Glacier Bay, than any other cruise line. “These new cruisetours reflect our commitment to deliver an enriching journey that allows our guests to explore more of Alaska while creating lasting memories.”

Katmai Calls
The Katmai National Park Cruisetour, which was announced in December 2023, gives guests three days in Anchorage before or after their cruise, flying from there to King Salmon to reach Brooks Lodge for a day to observe the park’s famous brown bears eagerly welcoming the return of sockeye salmon.

Established in 1918 to protect the volcanically devastated region surrounding Novarupta and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, Katmai National Park and Preserve also protects 9,000 years of human history and important habitat for salmon and thousands of brown bears. These mammoth animals, which can each weigh between 600 and 900 pounds, compete for the best fishing spots. The hungriest bears can catch and eat more than 120 pounds of salmon—or about forty fish—each day.

“While you may see bears in other places around the world, you won’t see bears like this,” says Matt Johnson, interpretive program manager and public information officer at Katmai. “These bears don’t normally congregate together in nature, but they do tolerate each other around the falls during the salmon run because there’s plenty of food for them.”

Cruise Lines Meet Changing Demographics
With approximately 35.7 million passengers expected to cruise worldwide in 2024, cruise lines are hustling to create products and itineraries that attract those who choose this mode of travel. While previous generations may have been satisfied with spending most days at sea, the younger generation wants to spend more time visiting destinations and taking part in authentic travel experiences.

According to Cruise Lines International Association, there is more interest than ever before among Millennials and Gen X travelers to take their first cruise. Approximately 7 percent of Millennials are at the age where a first-time cruise vacation grabs their interest, 73 percent of Gen Xers are. Of those who have cruised before, 88 percent of Millennials and 86 percent of Gen Xers say they plan to cruise again.

To meet this demand, cruise lines are offering both shorter and longer itineraries. While the average cruise length continues to be around seven days, the range of options has expanded, including overnight stays in certain ports of call. For example, Princess Cruises’ new National Park Cruisetour includes seven days at sea and eight days on land.

Cruise Lines International Association reports that 50 percent of current and potential cruise travelers say that they are more committed to making travel decisions based on environmental impacts than they were three years ago. Thus, cruise lines are offering environmental education and sustainable tour experiences.

Travelers are also becoming more interested in expedition cruises, which are smaller than traditional cruises and designed to provide immersive, active, responsible experiences that focus on nature. The number of passengers on expedition cruises more than doubled from 2016 to 2022; during 2022, 137,000 cruise travelers sailed on expedition ships, and that number is expected to grow.

No, cruise ships aren’t carrying passengers directly to Brooks Falls, but a flight connection from Anchorage to King Salmon adds that destination to the shoreside intinerary.

Katmai National Park and Preserve

a bear in the water with a salmon in its mouth
A trip to Katmai starts with registration at the Visitors Center and a mandatory “bear camp” to learn how to deal with the local bruins (such as moving off paths to give bears the right-of-way). Visitors have the option of wandering trails in the area or walking the 1.2-mile trail directly to Brooks Falls to watch the bears.

“At the falls, there is a platform where people can view bears to get an up-on-high view and to also have some measure of safety,” says Johnson. “There is also a bridge farther downriver from the falls where they can see the bears from a platform as well.”

Buses run daily to take visitors into the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, where there are more than a dozen active volcanoes as well as numerous archeological wonders. Hiking is available in that area, and there are also shorter hikes up Dumpling Mountain from Brooks Camp and other trails around the camp itself.

The site is rich in cultural attractions, Johnson notes, as communities have used the resources of the Valley for more than 5,000 years. “This area has been active with humans and bears for many years, and you can see evidence of the people who came before at a cultural site featuring interpretive displays not far from Brooks Camp itself; it’s just a short hike,” he explains. “The archeological site is fascinating.”

landscape of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes
The lunar landscape of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is within reach for cruise ship passengers who opt for the westward excursion.

Katmai National Park and Preserve

western path of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes
Visitors to the area from June 1 to September 17 may also take advantage of daily ranger-led programs at the park’s auditorium. As part of the Princess cruisetour, a lunch is provided, as well as an exclusive souvenir designed just for Princess guests.

“This new Katmai National Park Cruisetour offers our guests a deeper connection and intimate bear-watching encounter in their natural habitat,” Syme says. Although only introduced this past winter, she says response to the Katmai National Park Cruisetour has been strong.

The Katmai Park Cruisetour combines a seven-day cruise with two hotel nights in Anchorage. Including flights to and from Katmai National Park and all transfers, rates start at $2,429 per person.

Packaging Parks
Depending on the route chosen, the fifteen-night National Parks Cruisetour ranges from $3,597 to $4,017.

The package lets guests explore Glacier Bay, Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias, and Kenai Fjords National Parks, as well as Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway. This experience combines a seven-day cruise, scenic rail travel, and eight nights on land, including stays at four Princess-owned wilderness lodges.

Designed for “explorers and wanderers,” this cruisetour has port calls in Whittier, Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan, and Vancouver, British Columbia as well as scenic cruising at Hubbard Glacier and Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.
“This area has been active with humans and bears for many years, and you can see evidence of the people who came before at a cultural site featuring interpretive displays not far from Brooks Camp itself; it’s just a short hike… The archeological site is fascinating.”
Matt Johnson, Public Information Officer, Katmai National Park and Preserve
Each park is its own unique destination: visitors can bask in the splendor of Alaska’s pristine landscape at Denali National Park and Preserve, home to the tallest mountain in North America at roughly 20,310 feet. Views at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest national park in the US (equal to six Yellowstones) include sweeping glaciers and nine of the nation’s sixteen highest mountain peaks, as well as unique Klondike gold rush history.

The Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjords National Park comprises forty glaciers that carved the fjords and continue to feed into the ocean. Across the Gulf of Alaska, Glacier Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its bright blue ice and grizzlies wandering the shore. And Skagway’s National Historic District takes visitors back to the 1890s, where Klondike gold rush stampeders made their way to the Yukon gold fields.

Because Princess owns and operates five wilderness lodges in Alaska on the doorsteps of sought-after national parks, cruisetour guests can enjoy time exploring the vast interior of the state.

the most rugged vistas in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes
The most rugged vistas in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes remain inaccessible except to long-distance hikers, but park rangers are prepared to give cruise ship tourists a taste.

A. LaVelle | Katmai National Park and Preserve

At two of the lodges—Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge and Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge—food service includes “garden to table” menus with fresh, local ingredients, depending on harvesting seasons.

An onboard amenity new for 2024 is “Voyage to the Stars,” a planetarium in the Princess Theater. “The presentation introduces them to the beauty and wonder of the aurora borealis featuring live imagery,” says Syme.

As long as a cruise to Alaska remains a “bucket list” vacation wish, cruise lines will come up with new ways to make those dreams come true. Syme says, “Alaska is a unique and awe-inspiring destination, and our guests want to experience an up-close look at the wildlife of the Great Land.”

Cruise Lines Meet Changing Demographics
With approximately 35.7 million passengers expected to cruise worldwide in 2024, cruise lines are hustling to create products and itineraries that attract those who choose this mode of travel. While previous generations may have been satisfied with spending most days at sea, the younger generation wants to spend more time visiting destinations and taking part in authentic travel experiences.

According to Cruise Lines International Association, there is more interest than ever before among Millennials and Gen X travelers to take their first cruise. Approximately 7 percent of Millennials are at the age where a first-time cruise vacation grabs their interest, 73 percent of Gen Xers are. Of those who have cruised before, 88 percent of Millennials and 86 percent of Gen Xers say they plan to cruise again.

To meet this demand, cruise lines are offering both shorter and longer itineraries. While the average cruise length continues to be around seven days, the range of options has expanded, including overnight stays in certain ports of call. For example, Princess Cruises’ new National Park Cruisetour includes seven days at sea and eight days on land.

Cruise Lines International Association reports that 50 percent of current and potential cruise travelers say that they are more committed to making travel decisions based on environmental impacts than they were three years ago. Thus, cruise lines are offering environmental education and sustainable tour experiences.

Travelers are also becoming more interested in expedition cruises, which are smaller than traditional cruises and designed to provide immersive, active, responsible experiences that focus on nature. The number of passengers on expedition cruises more than doubled from 2016 to 2022; during 2022, 137,000 cruise travelers sailed on expedition ships, and that number is expected to grow.