Nome welcomes first cruise ship of the 2017 season
Nome hosted its first cruise ship of the summer, the Silver Discoverer, on Friday, July 7. The vessel, with a relatively small capacity of 128 passengers, was a warm-up for what is to come. Four more cruise ships are scheduled to arrive in Nome this summer, including the Bremen’s visit this week. In late August the 1,000 plus passenger mega-ship Crystal Serenity will visit Nome for the second time.
The Silver Discoverer is owned by Silversea Cruises, a private luxury line headquartered in Monaco, but this particular cruise is run by Zegrahm Expeditions. The passengers flew in on Alaska Airlines the morning of July 7, and left on the ship that night. Though only in town for a few hours, tourists got a well-rounded Nome experience, complete with gold mining and dog mushing demonstrations as well as tours of the Katirvik Cultural Center and the Carrie M. McClain Memorial Museum.
Nome craftspeople used the influx of potential buyers to show off their work. Angela Hansen organized a craft fair at Anvil City Park, where local artisans sold their wares for a few hours. These events will continue throughout the summer, including the Nome Berry Festival on Sunday, August 20, the day the Crystal Serenity arrives. The last scheduled ship is Le Boreal, which will arrive on September 13.
A somewhat unplanned highlight for a few of Silver Discoverer passengers was seeing a herd of musk ox near the outskirts of town. Most passengers were extremely enthusiastic about seeing them, as Nome was likely their last opportunity to spot the animals.
Among the excited visitors were father and son Richard and Marshall Popkin, who both said their first emotion upon arriving in Nome was surprise at how small the town is. The older Popkin explained that, even though he grew up across the country in the Washington D. C. area, he had known about Nome for as long as he could remember. “If you make a list of 100 towns with populations of roughly 3,000 and show it to people across the country, I bet Nome is the only one people will know,” Popkin speculated. This was not his first time in Alaska, but he was especially excited to see Nome because of its history. Upon driving by the White Alice site atop Anvil Mountain, Poplin and Priscilla Myers of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, recalled hearing about Nome during the Cold War era.
It was Marshall Popkin’s first time to Alaska, and the trip had special significance for him. Alaska is the 50th state Poplin has visited. “It’s great because Alaska is the last frontier, and it’s kind of my last frontier,” he said.
After leaving Nome, the Silver Discoverer headed north, crossing the Arctic Circle and then the international date line before turning south to visit Provideniya. From there, the Silver Discoverer will head back toward America. On the return trip passengers will visit several islands, including St. Lawrence Island, as the route roughly traces the outline of Alaska. After numerous stops in the Aleutians, the cruise ends in Seward on July 20.
The Nome tours were provided by Northern Logistics, a company owned by David Karp and Robin Johnson. About a year ago, Karp and Johnson purchased Nome Discovery Tours, formerly owned by Nome mayor and longtime tour guide Richard Beneville.
Karp explained that Northern Logistics caters to cruise ship passengers, as it has done in the past, while Nome Discovery Tours is geared toward day trips for independent visitors. Beneville remains the chief tour guide, and says he’s still “deeply involved” in the company. Northern Logistics has partnered with Anchorage-based Explore Tours, a connection that allows the Nome operation to draw on a large tourist population.
“Business is strong,” Karp reported, adding that his company has been giving several City tours each week. However, at this point in the season most of their focus is on 2018; he expects tourism numbers to grow. According to Nome Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Mitch Erickson, tourism numbers for 2017 have stayed about the same as in the past few years. Speaking as the mayor, Richard Beneville agreed, saying that the current status of tourism in Nome is “ok, it’s pretty good.”
There is still room to grow, however.
Though most of the booking and advertising is done through Explore Tours, Karp said they are working on refining their message, hoping to expand their offerings beyond “gold and dogs.” The goal is to give tourists a more in-depth exposure to the region by including trips to villages as well as more serious gold mining experiences and exposure to reindeer herding. Beneville credits companies such as AKAU, a gold resort, with “broadening the base of tourism” beyond a daylong overview.
Karp believes that Nome is experiencing a “resurgence” of tourism. “Potential” was a word he used several times when talking about the future of Nome, and he believes that most of this potential will be fulfilled by cruise ships. Growing up in Nome, he recalled several bus loads of visitors getting off of the plane each day. For a few years, these numbers diminished. Now, cruise ships, especially larger ships such as the Crystal Serenity, are bringing more and more tourists to Nome.
However, Beneville, for one, does not foresee a return of the blue and white buses. The market is different now, he explained. “It’s more high end, because you need to get here,” he said. Though this limits the number of people who can come, it also ensures that those who are here really want to visit Nome.
Nome’s unique location and the lack of road access play an important role in determining the type of people who visit. But melting ice in the Arctic has made the region more accessible for more months out of the year. Most of Alaska’s cruise traffic is in Southeast, but melting ice conditions in the Arctic are making travel farther north a more viable option.
Speaking as a nearly 30-year veteran guide, Beneville said he has noticed a difference not only in the customers themselves, but in what they are interested in. Though the sense of adventure remains a constant for Nome visitors, they are now more focused on Native culture and climate change. Beneville named cultural tourism as one area to expand upon.
Beneville believes that the future will hold more and larger cruise ships. There are also more private yachts. “That’s [a] considerable, because there used to be none,” he said.
The way people arrive in Nome is changing, as is how they find out about the town. “Nome has always been blessed with a multitude of free publicity, both good and bad,” Erickson said. For a town that lacks the funds to advertise in most print publications, social media, which is becoming more and more prevalent, provides free publicity.
“Just ‘Google’ Nome and there are over 10 pages of info on or about Nome,” Erickson said. Along these lines, the Visitor’s Center maintains a Facebook page along with their website.
One market audience is the so-called “bucket listers,” those who come to see the scenery and animals and learn about the Alaska Native Culture. For several years, reality shows, most notably Discovery Channel’s “Bering Sea Gold”, brought want-to-be gold miners to Nome. However, there have also been film crews coming in to document the effects of climate change in the region.
Another significant portion of Nome’s tourist population each year is composed of bird watchers, who are intrigued by the region’s diverse habitats and proximity to the Asian continent. There are currently five birding tour companies in the Nome area.
As far as getting the word out about Nome, Beneville said he and other Nome representatives attend tourism industry events. Erickson mentioned that the City bought a booth to advertise the region at the San Diego travel show last March. “This summer we had a family stop by the (Visitor’s Center) to let us know they made the decision to come to Nome for a week after visiting our booth in San Diego,” said Erickson.
The City subscribes to the Alaska App, which provides information about the town. Nome occasionally advertises in birding magazines and works with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to produce the “Alaska Nome Area Wildlife Viewing Guide.” This is available both as an app and in hard copy. According to Erickson, another effort the City has made was working with a film company last spring. The production is currently still in process.
The future, Beneville said, is very bright. He is cautiously optimistic about the opportunities that climate change may present, including the addition of a deep-water port in Nome. Certainly, the world is changing, in more ways than one.
“We need to be ready to capitalize on it,” Beneville said, but added that he is not exactly sure how, yet. Despite extensive and expensive efforts to advertise, another way to market Nome is through word of mouth. “And the word on Nome is good,” Beneville said with conviction.