Chris McGraw, speaking at the Sitka Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Wednesday, May 1 (KCAW Photo/Robert Woolsey)

It’s that time of year when sunglasses clad, umbrella carrying folks frequent the streets of Sitka, snapping photos along the way. That’s right, it’s tourist season. At Wednesday’s (5/1/19) meeting of the Sitka Chamber of Commerce, Chris McGraw of Halibut Point Marine spoke about the growth Sitka could continue to see in the tourism sector over the next decade.

Chris McGraw is the general manager at Halibut Point Marine- operating Old Sitka Dock, where most of the big cruise ships dock during the summer months. He says globally, the cruise industry is booming.

“2019, you’re looking at about 30 million passengers worldwide, and it’s pretty much been a steady increase over the past decade.”

In 2019 Alaska saw just under 5 percent of that pie. And where does Sitka fall in comparison to other ports in the state? McGraw says we used to see the most passengers.

“In 1996 we had 252,000 passengers, and we were at 54 percent of the total cruise passenger traffic in Alaska,” he says. “If you look at that number today, Sitka’s right there at 17 percent.”

He says Sitka is now the 5th most visited port behind Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway and Hoonah.

But from 2018-2019 we saw a big jump in passenger count, nearly 40 percent, more growth than any other port in the state.

Why? McGraw says a lot of the cruise lines are replacing smaller ships with larger ones. And in 2017 the Panama Canal completed an expansion that allowed for even bigger ships to move through.

“Now that the canal has increased, the companies can deploy the larger ships that primarily stay in the Caribbean in the winter, they can redeploy those to the Pacific and utilize them in Alaska,” he says.

The term for these supersized ships is “neopanamax.” Alaska will see 4 of them this cruise season. One, the 4000 passenger Ovation of the Seas, will call one time in Sitka.

McGraw says with losing some ships and gaining others, Sitka is slated to see just under 5 percent growth in cruise ship passengers in 2020, and the ten year outlook is strong.

“We are going to see considerable growth over the next ten years. There are so many ships that are being built, that they’re going to need places to put them. Alaska is a very popular destination,” he says. “As an industry locally we need to start planning now for that time when numbers could get 300,000, 400,000 passengers.”

McGraw says to prepare for that Sitka needs to make improvements to Lincoln Street, widening sidewalks and taking traffic into consideration.

“As a community we need to do what we can to support [the industry] and make sure we don’t run into issues of overcrowding and the community feeling like the cruise ship industry is infringing on the enjoyment of living in Sitka in a small town,” he says.

Smaller cruise ships have already started docking in Sitka with the first large ship, the 2100 passenger Eurodam, slated to arrive on May 8.