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With 20 Ships Scheduled, Unalaska Expects Record-Setting Cruise Season

Berett Wilber/KUCB

Twenty cruise ships are slated to call on the city this year. That'll set a new record, according to Director Carlin Enlow of the Unalaska Visitors Bureau.

"We were going to have 13 cruise ships a couple years ago and three of them canceled," she said. "We went down to eight last year. So to have 20 cruise ships this year is a huge, huge increase."

The first vessel will arrive May 6, with cruise season continuing through the end of September.

In the past, Unalaska has generally seen smaller ships with 200 to 300 passengers. But this year, Enlow said most ships will carry 500 to 700.

"It's going to make it busy, because there'll be a steady incoming of medium-sized ship after medium-sized ship after medium-sized ship," she said. "After this season, I think the city will be able to see what is working and what is not working."

Enlow is referring to the difficult logistics surrounding cruise season in a small community — coordinating buses from the port, dealing with extra pedestrian traffic, and managing greater demand at stores and restaurants.

Unalaska is still grappling with the challenges that come with more vessels. Because of that, Enlow said the visitors bureau doesn't solicit ships — and she doesn't want that to change anytime soon.

"We just don't have the infrastructure right now," she said. "We don't have the facilities. I don't think we even have the slightest idea of what we would do if there was an emergency and we had 500 to 2,000 extra people on the island. There's a lot that needs to be talked about and put in place before we would even consider going out for bids or soliciting cruise ships."

So while tourism demand is growing, Enlow said she doesn't foresee Unalaska becoming a major cruise ship destination like Ketchikan or Juneau.

"I like our little haven out here — being this little tight-knit community, and this island being our secret home," she said. "The flip side is this is a great alternative revenue source for our community. If fishing were to take a nosedive, then tourism could be another income source."

Enlow said increased tourism will be good for existing small businesses and nonprofits — and could even support new businesses that cater to visitors.

That's a sentiment echoed by the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association (APICDA), which has invested startup funds in two local ventures. One would provide bike rentals, while the other would offer tours and recreational equipment including jet skis and paddle boats.

Zoë Sobel reported for KUCB from 2016 until 2019. She returned to KUCB after a year living in Nepal and Malaysia as a Luce Scholar. She then returned to KUCB as a ProPublica reporter August of 2020 through August of 2021.
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