Scheerens traced the history of cruising back to the sale of Alaska to the US in 1867, and the arrival of famed naturalist John Muir. He said paddle-wheels and steamships with tourists soon began to call regularly in Alaska, some of the first outside investment in the new territory.
“And in all that 125-year history of cruising, none of these have ever been owned and operated by an Alaskan company.”
Allen Marine combined an idea an opportunity last summer, when Cruise West folded. Allen leased two of the defunct company’s small cruise ships, the Spirit of Columbia and the Spirit of Alaska, and renamed them the Admiralty Dream and the Baranof Dream respectively.
By coincidence, the Allens in June had purchased a 42-passenger cruising catamaran, the Executive Explorer, with an eye to entering the multi-day market. That ship has been renamed the Alaskan Dream.
So Allen Marine has gone from a day-tour operator to a small ship cruise line, said Scheerens, “Sooner than we’re ready for.”
“Here we are. We picked up a few overnight vessels, and kinda thought we’d take the plunge.”
Allen Marine has taken risks before. In 1992 the company shed its boat haul-out business and built a pair of twin-engine aluminum monohulls called the Sea Otter Express and the Sea Lion Express. The boats cruised at high speeds, and covered a 50-mile roundtrip wildlife tour in less than four hours. The tours were instantly popular with large cruise ships for shore excursions.
The company rapidly expanded to include larger-capacity catamarans working on the same business model. The Allens opened similar tour businesses in Juneau and Ketchikan – all using boats they built themselves.
Scheerens told the chamber that even though tourism to Alaska was still in a slump, the time seemed right for launching a small cruise line.
“So why would we start this now? First of all, it’s an opportunity to diversify. The boatbuilding business that Allen Marine has kind of comes and goes with contracts. When we have a good one, everything’s going a hundred miles and hour, but then there’s kind of a lull while you get another contract. So it might help to have something else on the books. The dayboat operation – which is a good one, a successful one – rises and falls with the cruise ship industry to some extent, and we’ve been seeing a bit of a downturn there. So this gives us an opportunity to diversify our business into an area where our present business isn’t.”
Scheerens said that overhauling the new ships would help stabilize employment in Allen Marine’s yard. Only the Admiralty Dream will cruise in the first part of the summer. The Alaskan Dream will be in the yard until July. The Baranof Dream will be ready for cruising next season. The company has brought in a half-dozen full-time management staff, and plans on a seasonal complement of about twenty people this summer.
The eight-day, seven night cruises are not cheap. A single berth on the Admiralty Dream begins at $1,900. On the Alaskan Dream, which Scheerens described as “luxury yacht cruising,” per-person occupancy begins at $4,000, the owner’s suite goes for almost $8,000 per passenger. Scheerens anticipates that Sitka will see a corresponding bump in sales tax revenues from the cruises, which will begin and end in town. A full boatload would generate $90-thousand in local taxes. A full season with all three boats in operation would bring 15-hundred visitors to town.
Based on 2011 reservations, Scheerens said, “Seventy-five percent of the people, are booking one, two, three, or five days in Sitka before or after their tour. This is going to put a lot of people in town who ordinarily wouldn’t be here. We estimate that the average person will spend $350 on hotel, meals, gifts. They’re booking kayak trips, fishing charters, Fortress of the Bear, the Raptor Center. They’re going to the national park, the church. These people will be spending about $350 per person which should put us in excess of $450-thousand, or near a half-million, in direct spending in Sitka and not directly to us.”
Scheerens says he can hardly believe how much work remains to be done on Alaskan Dream Cruises before the first trip sets sail in mid-May. He said, “A lot of times I wake up wondering why I got involved in this.”
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