In an Aleutian fishing port, cruise ships bring possibility and peril
UNALASKA — It was a regular September Sunday in Unalaska: Towering volcanic mountains still velvety green and exploding with blueberries, rafts of otters floating near shore, fish processing plants humming. The wind blew a steady 20 mph, good enough for the daily flight from Anchorage to attempt a landing.
Just before noon, a Hurtigruten cruise ship docked and disgorged 500 passengers.
Abruptly, hundreds of tourists wearing identical red jackets fanned out over the roads, stopping to snap photos of bald eagles perched on telephone poles.
Days like this are becoming the new normal in Unalaska, a proudly isolated Aleutian fishing port reckoning with what it means to be Alaska’s newest cruise destination.
This summer, 18 cruise ships visited Unalaska. That’s the most ever “by a significant margin,” said Carlin Enlow, the executive director of the Unalaska Visitors Bureau.
Next year, up to 24 cruise ships are expected as high-end “expedition” cruising companies seek unfrequented Alaska destinations, and a changing climate makes cruising in places like the Northwest Passage and Bering Sea a viable option.
Unalaska now faces urgent choices about both the practical matters of hosting tourists and philosophical questions that get to the heart of what makes life special on this windy Aleutian island.
Some people in Unalaska see tourism as an opportunity to diversify the economy of a town long dominated by the fishing industry. Others see peril in an influx of tourists, and look to communities in Southeast Alaska struggling with how to balance large-scale cruise tourism with quality of life for locals.