CIRI sells part of Valdez tour company back to Stephens

Posted: Thursday, December 19, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Cook Inlet Region Inc. says a lack of passengers is forcing it to shut down its Valdez tour boat operations at the end of December. The company will return the business to former owner Stan Stephens.

Stephens, a longtime Prince William Sound boat captain, said Wednesday that he's buying back some of the business he sold to CIRI in 1997 and plans to turn it around.

Within minutes of learning of CIRI's decision to close the Valdez office of Prince William Sound Cruises & Tours, Stephens decided to emerge from retirement and reclaim the company he and his family founded in the 1960s.

''The first thing I asked them was, 'Are you willing to sell any boats?' '' Stephens said. ''I don't want to see what we spent 40 years of our lives building just cut off.''

Stephens said he's negotiating with CIRI to buy two of the company's five boats while also looking on both the East and West coasts for possible vessels. His daughter, Colleen Stephens, will be president of the new company. The business will return to its former name -- Stan Stephens Cruises. The younger Stephens has been general manager of the Valdez tour company since her father's retirement last December.

CIRI is an Anchorage-based regional Native corporation with investments in telecommunications, real estate, oil and gas, construction and tourism.

CIRI tourism vice president Dennis Brandon said CIR has been trying to make the Valdez operation viable for about two years, but a steady drop in summer visitors to the pipeline port town made it tough going. Some 25,000 passengers bought glacier tours from the company five years ago. Last year, less than 13,000 people rode the boats, Stephens said.

''What really sealed the fate of it for us as an operator was the unfortunate events of 9-11 and the subsequent decline in visitors,'' Brandon said.

Many tourists stayed closer to home after the terrorist attacks, and Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. ceased its popular tours of the trans-Alaska pipeline port for security reasons, making the mountain-flanked city less of a draw for visitors, he said.

Valdez saw 20 percent fewer tourists last summer compared with a year earlier, according to Sharon Crisp, executive director of the Valdez Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Even before Sept. 11, 2001, several large cruise companies decided to forgo Valdez. Next summer Valdez will host only 13 cruise ship visits, compared with some 80 ports of call a few years ago, city manager Dave Dengel said.

Despite the tourism downturn, Stephens said he's confident his family can make a go of it. It'll be a smaller operation than what CIRI ran, he said. But Stephens has historically catered to independent travelers more than cruise ship passengers and will continue to. It will focus exclusively on Valdez while keeping its eye on Cordova as a possible future venue, Stan Stephens said.

CIRI, meanwhile, will continue to operate Prince William Sound Cruises & Tours out of Whittier and Kenai Fjord Tours in Seward, Brandon said.

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