'It's Going To Hurt:' Hopes Of A Lucrative Summer Tourism Season In Unalaska Are Fading

May 4, 2021

The ferry M/V Tustumena is scheduled for just five sailings to Unalaska this summer. And Carlin Enlow, executive director of UVB, said the island will likely only see about four or five smaller cruise ships.
Credit Hope McKenney/KUCB

This summer is shaping up to be another quiet tourism season in Unalaska. While public health mandates and regulations loosen, things like reduced ferry service to the island, ongoing regulatory battles keeping large cruise ships out of port and lingering fears about the risks of COVID-19 will likely mean Unalaska's shores will remain mostly void of visitors for the second year in a row.

The ferry M/V Tustumena is scheduled for just five sailings to Unalaska, rather than its twice-monthly service that was the norm through 2019. And while Carlin Enlow, executive director of the Unalaska Visitors Bureau (UVB), said the island was expecting roughly 18 cruise ships this summer, the community will likely only see about four or five vessels. 

Enlow said when it comes to planning around mandates and protocols that frequently change, preparing for this year's cruise ships has been a rollercoaster.

"It's so much to keep up with because it changes every single day," Enlow said. "And you have so many different guidelines, whether it's local, state, federal or corporate, or whatever these cruise ships are having to adhere to."

While the possibility of Alaska seeing any foreign-flagged cruise ships this summer is waning, she said the island may see some smaller vessels, of 250 or fewer passengers. But that could be a good thing, in terms of keeping Unalaskans' exposure to the virus low.

"You're going to see them meeting some pretty high COVID protocols to be able to make these sailings work for them," she said. "But that's easier for them because they have a smaller passenger capacity." 

Unalaska's Port Director Peggy McLaughlin said, like cruise ship traffic, she's not sure how many tourists to expect visiting through the Alaska Marine Highway System. But with a loss of eight Unalaska City School District faculty and two other staff members this year, she does expect to see some significant movement of residents on the Tustumena.

"We've had a kind of a mass exodus of many of our teachers and school people," McLaughlin said. "And that is a preferred choice of moving families and households for the school system."

The 57-year-old Tustumena provides crucial services to rural areas like Unalaska, she said. It's not just essential for moving people and their belongings on and off island, but also provides cheaper and more accessible means for connecting workers and goods in Alaska, especially in remote regions.

"There's a whole other layer of commerce that the Tustumena provides," McLaughlin said. "It's really critical to the Aleutians because it is an affordable way to move certain goods and equipment for contracts in these rural areas that are tough to get into and expensive to ship to — and may not have other means of regular shipping services." 

The Alaska Marine Highway System recently increased passenger capacity on its ferries, which was originally limited due to the pandemic, from 50 to 75%. But at just one sailing per month starting this month, McLaughlin said the limited schedule will still make planning a challenge for everyone, from city planning departments or contractors to people in the Aleutians who may rely on the ferry system for groceries or medical care.

For local organizations like the Museum of the Aleutians (MOTA), those limited sailings and the lack of cruise ship tourism is a blow.

"We're going to see those losses," said MOTA Director Virginia Hatfield. "And it's going to hurt." 

Hatfield said the museum is hoping to see some tourists this summer and staff is grateful that the ferry will still be visiting once a month. But as of right now, they're expecting to take hits similar to those they suffered during last summer's tourism season.

"It actually feels a lot like last year, when all of the grants started popping up in April, May and June," she said. "And I felt like I was playing whack-a-mole with 'write-a-grant.' I was just working real hard to see what was out there and to apply for what was available." 

MOTA recently received over $300,000  from the City of Unalaska, but Hatfield said without tourists in the later summer months, they're going to have to find more grant money to fill that gap.

Enlow, UVB's director, echoed Hatfield's concerns with finding extra funds. 

"I honestly was really nervous this past fall and into the winter about how we were going to make it through this and [had] fleeting thoughts of having to dissolve the visitors bureau and just little things like that would get to me," Enlow said. "And then come January, there was some stuff that started making it apparent that it's gonna be alright, it's gonna figure itself out." 

Some of the cruise lines UVB works with are helping to connect them with grants and possible funding, she said. And the community, including the city, which also awarded the visitor's bureau a significant chunk of money, has stepped up to show support.

UVB recently moved to a new location, which is in the Safeway plaza next to GCI. They are hoping to host an open house and be officially open to the public sometime in June.

The Tustumena began its sailings this month. Its first stop in Unalaska is scheduled for May 22.