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Seward welcomes first cruise ship, kicking off summer tourism season

Riley Board

Seward welcomed its first cruise ship of the season, the Norwegian Jewel, at the harbor on Monday [May 8], after it completed a seven day voyage from Vancouver, BC — kicking off the summer tourism season.

“It was really exciting to have people back into our office asking about what to do with their days,” said Kat Sorenson, executive director of the Seward Chamber of Commerce. “Our shuttles are really busy to and from the cruise ship terminal to town. So it's definitely kind of an unofficial start to the tourist season here in Seward.”

She says despite recent snowfall and a late spring, guides and tour companies have been preparing.

“It's been a little weird this summer because we did just have a snow storm,” she said. “So while everybody's out, training their new kayak guides, or trying to get their property ready for visitors for the summer, they are also shoveling snow. But it has been fun to see everybody come back to town and get excited for the summer season.”

The cruise ship is one of 102 scheduled to dock in Seward this summer, bringing passengers to town, in addition to train passengers on the Alaska Railroad’s Coastal Classic route from Anchorage, and independent travelers. Sorenson says all those travelers impact the city’s hospitality industry.

“Restaurants are definitely getting a little bit busier,” she said. “I know that a lot of them are opening up this week and next. So it's really exciting. It's a great time of year.”

Like much of Alaska, Sorenson says Seward is seeing an uptick in visitors since the COVID pandemic, and people are staying longer in town. Last summer, Seward saw visitor days increase by 37 percent from the year before.

“Meaning that people are coming for more than one night, they're staying for upwards of five days exploring everything that Seward has to offer, and kind of becoming more involved with the community and engaging more with their visits,” she said

According to Seward Chamber of Commerce visitor data, the average length of stay was about three nights, and the city saw over 284,000 visitors, totalling over 1.8 million visitor days. Sorensen says that’s a positive tourism trend.

“It's a lot easier on our community, if we have the same amount of visitors for longer, instead of more visitors visiting for a day, that's much less turnover, much less interaction, and people start to figure out the lay of the land once they're here for a day or two,” she said.

She says Seward’s location was an advantage during the pandemic, when Alaska residents would make weekend trips to the community.

“A lot of people come down to Seward for the weekend from Anchorage or over from Homer and Kenai and it's a really good spot to get a weekend away or get out on the water to go halibut fishing, or to check out Kenai Fjords National Park,” she said.

Kenai Fjords National Park is one of the most visited parks in Alaska, and has seen an increase in visitors during the last three years of the pandemic, like other national parks throughout the state, including Katmai, Glacier and Denali.

With the influx of tourism, many Alaskan communities have struggled with staffing and housing employees. Sorenson says so far, there’s a mix of Seward businesses still looking to hire and house workers.

“From what I've heard, staffing is relatively okay,” she said. “There's always the outliers of people who are struggling to fill one or two last positions, or I've heard a few stories of people having employees that change their mind and don't come up to Alaska last minute. So the scramble there to see what the solution is.”

But, she says, it isn’t as bad as 2021, when businesses across the city were drastically understaffed.

COVID is also a concern with an influx of large groups to small Alaskan communities, and Sorenson says the Seward Community Health Center provides testing and vaccines, and a free shuttle pickup.

“I do know that they are constantly engaged and interacting with the city to get vaccinations to those who want them and get treatment and tests for those who want them,” she said. “So while it may not be at the forefront of everybody's mind, as it has been in the past two years, or three years, I guess, the Seward Community Health Center is a great resource for our community.”

The next cruise ship is scheduled for Thursday, followed by about four dockings per week for the rest of the month.

Corinne Smith is an award-winning reporter and producer who hails from Oakland, California. She’s reported for KFSK in Petersburg, KHNS in Haines, and most recently as a fish reporter for KDLG’s Bristol Bay Fisheries Report.
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