Steep drop in ferry travelers hurts Wrangell's tourism business

Less frequent service and the loss of about 6,000 ferry travelers a year over the past decade has cut deeply into Wrangell’s visitor industry.

“People view Wrangell as hard to get to,” and the significant cuts to state ferry service perpetuate that image, said Marjy Wood, owner of Tyee Travel.

After ferry service dropped from several port calls a week 10 years ago to one a week and developed dependability issues, travelers have booked ferries less frequently, she said. “It’s hard to schedule (trips) very far in advance and feel comfortable about it.”

More than 9,000 travelers a year came to town aboard a state ferry in the early 1990s. That had fallen to about 7,000 passengers a year 2010 through 2015. The numbers continued to decline as the state pulled ships out of service to save money, selling or scraping the vessels and reducing port calls.

Traffic into Wrangell dropped to about 4,000 passengers in 2017, falling further in fiscal year 2019 to 2,600.

Passenger numbers crashed with the pandemic to fewer than 300 in calendar 2020 before rising to about 700 travelers in the 2022 fiscal year that ended June 30.

While ferry traffic has sunk over the past decade, Alaska Airlines passenger loads have held steady in recent years. Alaska has been bringing about 20,000 people a year in and out of Wrangell, said Tim Thompson, airline spokesman in Anchorage. Though many air travelers are residents, not visitors.

Southeast-wide, about 372,000 passengers rode the state ferries in 1992, but traffic fell by more than half to 152,000 in pre-pandemic 2019.

Though not alone in suffering a sharp drop in passenger traffic, Wrangell’s counts declined by a larger percentage than other ports. Ketchikan passenger numbers went from almost 36,000 in 2011 to 23,000 in 2019. Juneau dropped from 75,000 in 2011 to 41,000 in 2019, according to Alaska Marine Highway System statistics.

The ferry system “is a fantastic option, if it runs,” Wood said. But the risk of disrupted travel plans if ships cancel is too much for some travelers. When booking travelers, Wood said, she always looks for backup plans, such as flights or, in Haines, Skagway and the rest of the state, driving connections.

Though many of the lost ferry trips are due to residents making other travel plans — mostly flying — Wood said the reduction in tourists coming to town has meant a huge hit to businesses.

“I’ve talked with local tour operators” and they all have lost business, she said. The independent traveler coming into town aboard a ferry, booking tours and overnight stays has mostly “evaporated,” she said. Though increasing numbers of cruise ship travelers have helped make up for tour operators’ loss of ferry passengers.

Jim Leslie, who co-founded Wrangell-based tour operator Alaska Waters more than 25 years ago, also bemoans the loss of better ferry service. “We built our industry on the backs of the Alaska Marine Highway System,” he said of the independent travelers who sailed into town and hired the company for tours.

But then as ferry service began to deteriorate about 10 years ago, Alaska Waters suffered — until cruise ship numbers increased enough to fill the gap and “keep us alive,” Leslie said.

“I don’t see the independent traveler being a big part of Wrangell’s future unless we have two ferries a week (in each direction),” he said. One a week just doesn’t work for travelers who don’t want or cannot afford to stay a full week to the next ship to continue their travel.

Alaska Waters has contracts to provide tours for passengers aboard ships operated by Sitka-based Alaska Dream Cruises, which runs half a dozen boats ranging in capacity from 10 to 76 passengers. “I think small and midsize ships are going to be the future for Wrangell,” Leslie said.

The cruise ship schedule this summer called for about 19,000 passenger berths aboard ships calling on Wrangell, though occupancy has not been 100%. With one exception, the largest ship on the schedule carries fewer than 700 passengers.

Unlike the 4,000-passenger behemoths that call on Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway, the ships that carry several hundred passengers appeal to travelers who want an expedition experience, Leslie said. That’s a good market for Wrangell, he said. But it takes a lot of time and commitment to develop relationships with cruise operators, attend trade shows and promote the community’s attractions, he added.

 

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