Assuming the pandemic steers a better course next spring, Sitka is bracing for a record cruise ship season in 2022, with over 400,000 passengers expected to visit the community.
This number is over twice as many as arrived in 2019, the last full season, and about 100,000 more than the previous record.
The reason for the big jump is twofold: More large ships are coming to the Alaska market, and Sitka now has a place to put them.
KCAW’s Robert Woolsey recently took a tour of the new Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal with its owner, Chris McGraw.
Ten years ago, a private cruise ship dock was a bit of a pipedream, frankly. Sitka had two public lightering docks, and a three-decade old system of bringing cruise passengers to town aboard the ships’ own tenders.
Chris McGraw and his family had a boatyard, on land that fronted deep water. Why not build a cruise dock? Could James Earl Jones be wrong?
(movie clip: Field of Dreams)
Oh… people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.
Ray… you’ll lose everything… you will be evicted.
The Field of Dreams is part of American culture now, and so is the idea that you can build something, and a market will follow. Chris McGraw and Kevin Costner, who portrayed “Ray,” the Iowa farmer who saved his farm by building a baseball field, have more in common than you might think.
“We built the dock in 2011 and spent the first year without a single customer,” McGraw said. “The second year, we were able to attract one of the very small lines and had less than 15 dockings. And that grew very slowly over the next three years. And the whole time the larger ships were still tendering and you see them anchor out downtown, and we have a nice empty dock.”
It’s not empty anymore. Just below us, two Panamax-class cruise ships are tied up, the Serenade of the Seas and the Nieuw Amsterdam. They tower over McGraw’s dock like office buildings in New York City.
It wasn’t until 2015, after three years of knocking on doors and attending cruise conferences, that McGraw got the first Holland America ship to tie up here. And that was the proof of concept he needed to transform his Field of Dreams into a 40,000 square-foot, timber-framed and glass cruise facility.
“And once they started coming, you know, the rest of the various cruise lines that called in Sitka I think saw that ‘Oh, it works!’ And really the apprehension was, since we’re located five miles out of downtown, that the passengers may view that negatively,” McGraw explained. “And we’ve gotten very little negative feedback for the passengers having to get on a shuttle, the shuttle is provided for free, so the passengers aren’t paying for it. And in reality, it’s a 10 to 15 minute ride, and it’s fairly scenic, the traffic isn’t that bad. And I haven’t cruised very much, but talking to other people that have ports around the world, it’s very common to get dropped off, not necessarily in the downtown core, where you have to take some type of transportation to get to the downtown.”
McGraw won’t say how much he’s invested in the terminal itself. He halted construction last year during the pandemic, but resumed when legislation passed allowing cruising in the second half of the summer. A retail store is open, but the taproom and restaurant remain under construction. Although neither the Serenade of the Seas or the Nieuw Amsterdam is at full capacity, passenger foot traffic is moving easily to and from the downtown shuttle buses.
Next year, this smoothly-flowing system could be put to the test, with over 400,000 passengers projected to arrive in Sitka, many aboard neo-Panamax class ships like Ovation of the Seas, which holds 4,900 paying customers. In 2018 Sitka had only 158,000 cruise passengers, and a little more than 200,000 in 2019. McGraw’s cruise terminal is helping drive that increase, but he’s attuned to the interests of the community, and to Royal Carribean, which bought a minority interest in the dock itself.
“My hope is that our downtown remains unique, it is and is walkable,” McGraw said. “That it just keeps that kind of small town character because, you know, even the Royal Caribbean executives that we’ve had here a number of occasions, that’s the one thing that they comment they make is, you know, this, this feels like authentic Alaska. And I think it’s important that we keep that. And to a certain extent, I think having the dock removed from downtown will help that a little bit because that already kind of distributes those people a little bit. You know, we can only bus so many people per hour into town and were opposed if you had, you know, two berths, right downtown, then you could have instantly 6,000 people walking around.”
Keeping those 6,000 people busy doing something other than overcrowding Sitka’s downtown district is critical to the vision of the terminal. McGraw’s tour subsidiary, Adventure Sitka, has struck a deal with Shee Atika, Inc, Sitka’s urban Native Corporation, to build an adventure park with zip lines and trails on 17 acres of leased land adjacent to the terminal. At the other end of the road system, Adventure Sitka plans to pick up passengers by boat in Silver Bay, and take them to the far end of the bay for kayak tours, based out of an old hunting cabin McGraw’s family has owned for years.
Family is an important aspect of the business. The McGraws have been in construction for decades in Sitka, thinking big, and building big.
When the 964-foot Serenade of the Seas and the 936-foot Nieuw Amsterdam pulled into port this morning, there wasn’t a crew of beefy longshormen to meet them. McGraw, his 12-year old son, and his dad tied up the ships, along with an employee from their boatyard.
This is how things roll out here.
“It only takes about 45 minutes to tie up a ship, and 20 minutes to untie a ship,” said McGraw. “So, you know, hiring full time staff just for an hour and a half a day is not really practical, and with how difficult it is to find help right now. It works where we just do it.”
McGraw says he’s going to spend the winter working on organization at the Sitka Sound Cruise terminal, so each one of those 400,000 passengers next summer can disembark and find their shuttles or tours without needing to ask anyone. McGraw built it, and it looks like they are in fact coming.
(movie clip, Field of Dreams)
…And it will be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces…