Places like Sitka, Haines and Hoonah are known in the cruise industry as “second-tier ports” – smaller or less-accessible communities that cruise ships are less likely to visit.

And officials from Sitka, Haines and Hoonah want that to change.

“What they’re trying to do is put together a comprehensive proposal that they could take to a major cruise line to see if they would make an itinerary that has never been created before that includes exclusively second-tier ports,” said Tonia Rioux, president of the board for the Sitka Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The idea is called “Backroads Alaska,” and representatives of the three Southeast communities are hoping to present it in March at the cruise industry’s annual trade show in Miami. But before they make the pitch, they want to have something to sweeten the deal.

“Because,” Rioux said, “(the cruise line) would be taking a chance on trying something that’s really never been tried and as far as I know never considered before.”

In Sitka, incentives would apply only to the single ship that visits the second-tier ports exclusively. Ideas include closing down Lincoln Street for part of the day while the ship is in town, and waiving Sitka’s port fees for one year, again only for the vessel that’s operating on the Backroads itinerary. In Sitka, those fees amount to about $8,000 a year for one vessel.

“Obviously, $8,000 in a year to a cruise line isn’t a huge amount, but when combined with the other ports as well, it would be an incentive for them to come,” Rioux said. “And it would just be part of the proposal.”

The Assembly, including Mayor Cheryl Westover, expressed support for the plan, but members said there was a little more homework to do before the Assembly officially signed on.

Assembly member Thor Christianson asked about the bigger ports.

Christianson: “Cruise lines have their own businesses in those towns. Do we really think we can pull them away from their own profit centers like that? Is it realistic to think we can do that?”

Rioux: “I think if they have the customer base for it and if they could pilot it and not have any loss, it’s a possibility. That’s my opinion. I could be overly optimistic, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to try.”

Assembly member Phyllis Hackett wondered if businesses had been consulted on the idea to make downtown a pedestrian mall when the ship is in port. Rioux said she didn’t recall if downtown businesses had been consulted by John Dunlap, the Convention and Visitors Board member who worked most heavily on the plan.

Visitors Bureau executive director Sandy Lorrigan acknowledged that some businesses have expressed opposition to closing off downtown in the past. But Lorrigan said since those discussions, cruise ship traffic has decreased, which could change the mindset, especially as merchants browse the 2011 cruise schedule.

“It is just so scant,” Lorrigan said. “There might be two large ships in one week. It’s just unbelievable how it’s going to drop off for next year. And I think merchants are starting to notice that we need some funding coming in.”

Assembly member Larry Crews said it might be business near downtown, but not along Lincoln Street, that most object to the pedestrian mall idea, even if it is only one day a week.

“Primarily the problem is peripheral businesses off the main street. There’s no parking then for them all day. That’s always been the dilemma. A lot of people, they want to park in front of their business, even downtown. I don’t understand it, but they do. So they end up parking in everyone else’s parking – the peripheral and the side. So if it can be on a Saturday or Sunday, that’d be really best. But I don’t know if that can actually be done.”

Rioux said that could be a challenge. The itinerary works best if the ships hit each port when no other ships are in town. But on the other hand, she said, if it’s only one ship, maybe the schedule will be more flexible.

The Assembly will next consider whether to lend its support to the plan at a special meeting for January 18. That meeting was set to continue a discussion with the city’s Long Range Planning and Economic Development Commission. This plan will be an extra item on the agenda.
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