Royal Caribbean pulls out of Haines

Posted: Thursday, December 07, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- In a move local officials say will devastate Haines' economy, Royal Caribbean International announced plans Thursday to cancel all its ships' visits to the small Southeast Alaska port.

The company's rocky relationship with some Haines residents worsened two years ago after it admitted dumping oily bilge water and other pollutants. However, the town's economy relies heavily on cruise ship visits as it moves from timber and fishing to tourism.

''We just had the rug pulled out from underneath us,'' said Robert Venables, the president of the Haines Chamber of Commerce. ''We haven't hit the floor yet, but we don't like the sensation of falling, I'll tell you that.''

The high cost of fuel made the short stop in Haines a money-loser, company officials said. It's cheaper for ships to bypass Haines and travel directly between the more popular tourist ports of Juneau and Skagway.

''We routinely evaluate our ports and itineraries for operating efficiencies and customer satisfaction,'' said Royal Caribbean President Jack Williams. ''This decision was purely an economic one.''

Royal Caribbean Cruise Line and Celebrity Cruises -- both owned by Royal Caribbean International -- had been scheduled to bring three ships a week to Haines. Their departure will leave the port with only one major ship a week -- the Norwegian Wind.

At roughly 2,000 passengers a ship, that's 6,000 fewer visitors a week and 120,000 fewer over the course of a 20-week tourist season, Venables estimated.

In port, cruise ships typically make money by taking a cut from the shore excursions offered by local tour operators.

''We've always been a marginal market for cruise ships because we don't have all that many tours and things once the passengers get off,'' said Don Otis, the mayor of Haines.

However, one local tour operator said Royal Caribbean was retaliating against Haines for anti-cruise ship activity and making an example of the community to discourage such activity elsewhere in the region.

''We're the cheapest example that they could make and they're going to make it,'' said Bart Henderson, who operates tours is Haines, Skagway and Juneau. ''Let all the other ports know that you can't just raise head taxes and tour taxes without paying a price.''

After the dumping admissions of 1998, the Haines Borough voted to impose a 4 percent sales tax on shore excursions and approved a nonbinding resolution to limit the growth of cruise ship visits to Haines. Meanwhile, voters in Juneau imposed a $5 head tax on cruise ship passengers. A petition is circulating to put a similar tax on the ballot in Ketchikan.

Royal Caribbean ships have visited Haines since 1990, and company officials say they will continue to work with longtime partners among tour operators to stage shore excursions in the Haines area from nearby Skagway.

Smaller operators and local retailers who depend on walk-up traffic will likely be out of luck, Venables said.

''What really makes the most serious blow is the revenue taken from our downtown merchants,'' Venables said. ''It's a very bleak forecast for being able to compensate.''

Meanwhile, the city faces a big deficit on the operation of the Port Chilkoot dock, which was built specifically to attract cruise ships.

Payments on the bonds that financed the dock come to $126,858 a year.

Last year, with five ships coming in each week, the city took in $177,000 in docking fees, covering the debt service and paying half the salaries of the harbormaster and his assistant, Otis said.

This year, a single ship a week will likely bring in less than $40,000, and local sales tax revenues could also decline sharply.

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