Cruise lines are expecting an uptick in Alaska tourism over the next two years, as a state-supported overview of Alaska’s emerging shipbuilding industry identifies goals for its expansion.

Cruise Lines International Association Alaska projections released Friday expect the group’s members to send 34 Alaska ships on 519 voyages carrying 1,165,000 passengers this year, and 37 ships on 567 voyages carrying 1,310,000 passengers next year. Both tallies are up from 2017’s 33 ships, 497 voyages and 1,089,700 passengers, with this year’s projections reflecting a 19 percent expected jump.

The Alaska association’s president, John Binkley, said that those numbers reflect the Last Frontier’s attraction to tourists during a Friday speech at the Southeast Conference Mid-Session Summit in Juneau.

“Alaska is an exotic destination for many travelers,” Binkley said. “There aren’t many places where cruise passengers get to experience the mountains, glaciers, wildlife, culture and such hospitable hosts who welcome and eagerly share what they love most about our state. Alaska ranks very high in guest satisfaction.”

The increased traffic promises economic benefits for the ships’ Southeast Alaska ports of call, Binkley said. Next year, passengers stopping in Juneau are expected to spend $212 million, translating to an additional $1.8 million collected in local sales taxes.

The association also mentioned Icy Strait Point, a relatively new port of call in Hoonah which has risen from 34 visits in 2004 to a projected 122 visits in 2019.

“Owned by the local village corporation, Huna Totem Corp, they have over 85 percent local hire from the community of Hoonah,” a CLIA statement read.

Shipbuilders are also doing well in Alaska, according to a new report on the industry from the University of Alaska’s Center for Economic Development. The report, produced with help from the state Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, surveyed 14 of the state’s roughly 30 shipbuilding firms.

"Vessels built in-state range from ferries several hundred feet in length to small recreational watercraft," the report read. "The companies that build them can be found in Fairbanks, Homer, Anchorage, Ketchikan, and Wrangell to name a few, and they include industrial manufacturers, product innovators, and artisans. Alaska’s deep maritime expertise and relatively large market for water craft makes boat and ship manufacturing a unique area of competitive advantage."

Alaska’s shipbuilding sector supports about 700 jobs and $36 million a year in wages, according to the report. About half of the boat builders surveyed didn’t believe they had major competition in Alaska, with some citing Outside firms as far abroad as Australia as their main competitors.

An informational graphic on Alaska's shipbuilding industry, released with a 2018 report on the emerging sector. (Courtesy University of Alaska)

“These statements reinforce the perspective that Alaska’s specialty or artisanal boat builders are not direct competitors to the production vessels built in large-scale factories,” the report read. “They target a higher-end customer who has likely ruled out such a vessel in favor of one that is more customized, and/or uniquely suited to Alaskan operating conditions.”

The shipbuilders said they were focusing on building smaller boats after seeing slow sales and cost overruns with larger ones. One told the report’s authors that “people just are not buying $150,000 boats any more, they’re just now.”

With a weak economy and “cash flow challenges” in Alaska’s fishing industry over the last few years, some shipbuilders said they were seeing greater demand for repairs rather than new boats.

All but two of the shipbuilders said access to skilled labor has become a barrier to growth. More than half were in need of welders with experience working on aluminum, followed by six seeking fabrication skills and four looking for basic technical and general-labor skills.

Other issues faced by shipbuilders, according to the report, involve access to capital and logistical difficulties. The report recommends that the industry work to increase the number of vessels built in Alaska by 20 percent and maritime employment by 10 percent, increase use of regional facilities for maintenance and capitalize on resource development as well as expanded use of the Northwest Passage through Canadian waters.

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