The big boats are back. When the Norwegian Bliss departed Seattle on Saturday as the first big cruise ship of the 2022 season, it marked the return of one of Seattle's signature maritime industries. Like almost all cruise ships that depart Seattle, the Bliss will do a one-week tour of Southeast Alaska ports like Skagway and Ketchikan. But even before the Bliss returns for a second of more than 20 Alaska laps, Seattle will start to feel the effects.
Cruising is big business in Seattle. In 2019, the city saw its peak of cruise passengers, with 1.2 million passing through; while that pales compared to, say, Miami's almost seven million paying cruise customers annually, the impacts are still significant. The Norwegian Bliss was the first of 295 sailings scheduled for the Port of Seattle before the season ends in October—up from 213 in 2019— and the Port estimates that the economic impact of this year's trips will be $887 million. That includes what the passengers spend in hotels and restaurants before departing, but also the fresh Washington food, flowers, wine, and more, loaded on the ships as they turn around.
Cruising may be one leg of Seattle's local tourism, but in Alaska it's basically the whole table. More than half that state's visitors arrive via ship, and one in 10 Alaskan jobs are in tourism. With the Bliss headed northward, it brings back a financial lifeline to the state.
Those nearly 300 sailings from Seattle mean a return to pre-pandemic levels. Covid hit before the 2020 season had begun, so no cruise ships sailed from Seattle that year; in 2021, an abbreviated season saw 81 sailings. This year cruise facilities have updated HVAC systems and air purifications, but the mask mandate came down nationally before the Bliss rang in the season.
Without Covid at the forefront, conversations around cruising tend to come back to sustainability. Riding a giant ship might feel green, but in 2019 the New York Times reported that cruise ships produce three to four times more carbon dioxide per passenger mile than flying. Port of Seattle commissioner Ryan Calkins thinks that could change. "There's a real desire among all the parties involved to look at the Alaska market as a place to experiment to reduce environmental impacts of cruising," he says.
As a smaller port, Seattle could be a leader in green initiatives. Calkins notes that by 2024, Pier 66 will have electric shore power, meaning all three Port berths allow cruise ships to plug in while docked.
But small ships also come and go from Seattle, some departing from ports like Fishermen's Terminal, so they're not counted in the same conversations as the 2,000-room Norwegian Bliss. Locally based Uncruise Adventures sails ships from Fishermen's Terminal with as few as 22 passengers.
Right now the big cruise ships only use our Port of Seattle parking spaces four days a week; if cruising continues to grow, frequency could increase. But with the steady flow of on-water behemoths underway for 2022, Port media officer Peter McGraw says it like this: "Things are back to normal as much as we can expect."