More people are sailing Alaska’s marine highway this year. Rider and vehicle numbers are up after dropping last year.Last year’s worst of the recession brought ferry ridership, and revenues, down. But this year, they’re coming back up. Especially for big events, like the state fair in Haines.
“Boy last week was a big week,” says Marine Highway Chief Jim Beedle. “It was up 10 percent for passengers above last year. And vehicle counts were up 10 percent over what they were last year. So it’s a good year this year.”
He says overall passenger numbers are up almost 4 and a half percent this calendar year. That does not fully make up for last year’s drop of a little more than 6 percent.
But Beedle says it’s still enough to be considered a recovery.
“Last year the Bellingham runs didn’t sell out until almost the day of sailing. This year you can’t get on the Bellingham run. People made their travel decisions early. The staterooms are all gone. The car deck space is all gone. And that means that the traffic to Prince Rupert is up,” he says.
He says that’s good for towns such as Petersburg and Wrangell. Tourists boarding in Rupert, a central British Columbia port offered as an alternative to Bellingham, make more stops along the way.
“They’re people who are used to driving the highway, used to having hotels or camping. And they tend to want to spend more time in Southeast Alaska than the Bellingham folks. The Bellingham folks’ major ports are Ketchikan and Juneau and almost 40 percent of them go directly to the road system at Haines or Skagway and then just head up north,” he says.
Tourism and the improving economy are helping. But local traffic, to village destinations such as Hoonah and Angoon, is also up, though only a little bit. And Beedle says Southeast’s fast ferry runs, from Juneau to Sitka and Petersburg, are doing better than expected.
Along with passengers, vehicle traffic is also up about 3 percent this calendar year. It dropped a little more than 1 percent in 2009. In fact, Beedle says 2010 could set an all-time record for cars and trucks.
Marine Highway General Manager John Falvey says that’s a relief, since it was unclear how long the recession would impact traffic.
“We’re bouncing back. And it wasn’t as bad last year as we thought it might have been, with 5 or 6 percent off in Southeast. Some of the other tourism venues were off more than that, hotels and whatnot. So we’re actually pretty happy,” he says.
Growth is strongest at the western end of the system. Car decks are full in Prince William Sound. And Beedle says Kodiak-Homer traffic is up 25 percent.
Last year’s drop in traffic was partially caused by ship breakdowns, which reduced sailings.
For a little perspective, the ferry system carried about 320,000 passengers in 2009, plus about 110,000 cars and trucks.