What are the new guys on the block to do when the old timers hog the best spots? If the guys are Norwegian Cruise Line’s Frank Del Rio and Harry Sommer, and the spot is Alaska, the answer obviously is to build a new (and amazing) spot of their own.
That’s just what they’re up to at Icy Strait Point and Ketchikan, where Norwegian Encore’s August 7th post-Covid maiden voyage included two ribbon cuttings in the 49th state.
It’s amazing what has been accomplished in just 80 days, the locals say, since Alaska got the word that there was going to be any cruise ship season at all in 2021. The raven and the eagle that watch over the native tribes surely were at work, when “a piece of legislation that hasn’t been touched in years was changed with 100% consent in the House and the Senate and signed by the President in two days.”
“If you had asked me on April 1 if we would be here, I’d have said ‘no,’” said NCL president and CEO Harry Summer. “It was miraculous. And now, from mid-April to late October, we will be here with at least two ships every week.”
In Icy Strait, the 450 Alaskan shareholders in Norwegian’s new Wilderness Pier—who have invested $80 million they borrowed from the bank—have been waiting for us for 619 days, since the last cruise ship departed these waters. (That was one of many reminders on this trip of just how many folks, in countries near and far and towns big and small, are depending on the return of cruise ships for their livelihood.)
The new gondola system for NCL guests has 38 sleek six-person cabins that can carry 2,800 people an hour in each direction to the top of the mountain, where majestic views of the mountains and the ZipRider await, replacing 100 buses that otherwise would be needed for a 25-minute trip. A second gondola system, already under construction, will be 197 feet tall and offer 53 more cabins. Adventure Landing also offers shops, restaurants, a museum in a former salmon cannery, and of course lots of excursions.
The cruise ships used to dock in Glacier Bay, “without stopping here to meet the people,” says Mickey Richardson, marketing director for the Huna Totem Corp., formed under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971. Even before we arrived, he notes, we have greatly contributed to the local economy: like a giant scarecrow, the huge statue of an orca whale donated by Del Rio has scared away the local sea lions who used to feast on the Dungeness crabs here.
The Newest Destination
An even bigger vision for development awaits at Ward Cove, where two local families with deep roots in the tourism business have cleaned up a former Superfund site and built a brand new pier where Norwegian has priority. Overnight, NCL has become the largest taxpayer in the borough of Ketchikan.
On the site of a pulp mill built in 1954 that “drove the economy of southeast Alaska,” Ward Cove is being restored with a goal of immediately immersing guests in the Alaska experience. It offers “something different from the stores” of downtown Ketchikan, with quick and easy access to Tongass National Forest, said John Binkley, chairman of Godspeed Inc., which also owns Wings Airways, the Anchorage Daily News, and a number of local land and air tour businesses.
The largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, Tongass comprises 17 million acres. “It’s what this part of Alaska is all about, and it’s provided for the people here for thousands of years,” Binkley said. The hall into which passengers debark, The Mill at Ward Cove, is being designed to feel like “the entrance to the forest, with trees, mist, the smell of cedar and a multitude of things to do.” So far, 57,000 square feet have been renovated “and we have 225,000 more to go.”
The vision includes kayaks, watersports, a deck with dining overlooking the water, and even hydroelectric power into which ships will just plug and recharge. A gondola will take guests to the top of the mountain, where there will be food and beverage as well as hiking and zip lines. At the bottom, there will be zodiacs and kayaks, “maybe a Wildlife Conservation Center”—and in the Lena Point area, a beach with exclusive private wilderness cabins, “a destination where people can come and engage the beauty of Alaska in a safe and warm and organized manner.”
On the 15 acres being developed at the edge of the forest, guests will be able to ride electric bikes and golf carts through the wild skunk cabbage and ancient trees, making their way to Connell Lake for kayaking and water sports.
“We think this is the best model for the growth of the industry,” Binkley said. “And we believe it will allow the industry to grow in acceptance by the community.”
So far, optimism is running high, said Binkley’s son Ryan, CEO of Godspeed Inc. While covid may be a big disruption in the travel industry, “Alaska tends to pick up when there are disruptions,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we’re seeing companies like Norwegian Cruise Line coming here.”
Cheryl’s 40-year career in journalism is bookended by roles in the travel industry, including Executive Editor of Business Travel News in the 1990s, and recently, Editor in Chief of Travel Market Report and admin of Cheryl Rosen’s Group for Travel Professionals, a news and support group on Facebook.
As an independent contractor since retiring from the 9-to-5 to travel more, she has written regular articles about the life and business of travel agents for Luxury Travel Advisor, Travel Agent and Insider Travel Report. She also writes and edits for professional publications in the financial services, business and technology sectors.