With first-sailing dates little more than a month away, major cruise line companies say it's too soon to know if the Exxon oil spill in Prince William Sound will force them to change their Alaska itineraries.
For now, they're proceeding with plans as usual."Basically, it's premature for us to make any decisions right now," said Juli Chase, new bureau manager for Holland America Line-Westours. "If any itinerary changes are necessary, they will be made as sailing dates get closer."
Seeing Alaska by sea has become popular ever since the 1986 terrorism hysteria in Europe, when cruise ship after cruise ship pulled out of the Mediterranean and headed for Alaskan waters. This summer, more than 200,000 people are expected to visit Alaska by ship.
The 1,000-mile Inside Passage waterway in southeastern Alaska, which takes in Glacier Bay National Park, has been the most popular itinerary for cruise ships. In the last year or two, however, more and more ships have been going through the Gulf of Alaska and into Prince William Sound. The star attraction is the 40-mile-long Columbia Glacier, the largest tidewater glacier in Alaska and the fastest-receding glacier, which means it calves constantly. The glacier is 32 miles from Valdez and seven miles from Bligh Reef, where the Exxon oil tanker ran aground.
Of Holland America's four ships in Alaska, only the Rotterdam plans to travel a route that will include Columbia Glacier and Valdez. It will leave May 21 from Vancouver, B.C., and has 16 sailings planned. The remaining 52 sailings by the other three ships will be to the Inside Passage.
Princess Cruises plans to have three of five Alaskan-waters ships in the area affected by the oil spill: Pacific Princess, which will be the first of the fleet from Vancouver to Anchorage, leaving May 20, the Island Princess and Sea Princess.
"Obviously, we're concerned," said Princess spokeswoman Nancy Loewenherz. "Hopefully, we won't have to change itineraries, but we will wait and see. We're pretty confident, however, we won't have to switch."
Janet Williams, public relations assistant for Princess Tours, said she anticipates the oil spill will be almost cleaned up by the time the Pacific Princess arrives. "Leftover residue along the shores is what we're anticipating by the time we get there," she said. "It's terrible it happened at all, but thank goodness it didn't happen in the middle of the summer."
James Wright, marketing coordinator for the Alaska Tourism Marketing Council, does not expect tourism to the state to decline. "We expect an active and busy season," he said. "It is a terrible disaster for that region, but Alaska is a very, very big state."