INSPECTING— Members of Coast Guard Sector Juneau inspections division arrive at the cruise ship Crystal Serenity moored in Juneau, Alaska, to conduct a certificate of compliance exam June 22, 2016. The exam tests the crew’s ability to react in the case of an emergency covering a range of different scenarios.

Nome prepares for arrival of first luxury mega-cruise ship

Nome will host nearly 1,700 passengers and crew from the cruise ship Crystal Serenity this August. The Serenity will only be in Nome from 10 a.m. until 11 p.m. on August 21, and for that time will increase the town’s population by nearly 50 percent. It is by far the largest cruise ship to arrive in Nome.

Robin Johnson and David Karp, who together own the tour company Northern Logistics, are in charge of coordinating activities for the passengers during their time in Nome. Northern Logistics coordinated activities for cruise passengers in Nome for several years.

Johnson said she learned about the Serenity’s trip to Nome about a year ago, and she and Karp have been preparing tours ever since. Johnson said it was not too challenging to coordinate the tours; the most difficult part was finding enough vehicles to transport passengers around town. In addition to preparing activities, Johnson also needed to find a number of local people interested in serving as guides.

With each tour, Johnson hopes to teach passengers about what it means to live and work in Nome. This is why it is so important to find tour guides that are local residents.

John Stoll, Vice President of Land Programs at Crystal Cruises, praised Johnson and Karp for putting together what Crystal believes will be a “highly successful tour program” for Nome. He said that guests must pre-reserve the tours in advance to “ensure that (Crystal) does not overwhelm the local community of Nome.” The complimentary community excursions will be limited to 180 passengers at a time, which is approximately the size guides are accustomed to leading when smaller cruise vessels arrive in Nome. The tours will be staggered throughout the day. Stoll added that Johnson and Karp were instrumental in placing the Nome Berry Festival and Arts and Crafts Event on August 21 to encourage tourists to purchase local goods. Johnson said the festival will have live music and local vendors.

In addition to the complimentary excursions, passengers will have a variety of other activities to choose from, including land, sea and air tours. Options include bird watching at Safety Sound, a helicopter flight over Nome and the opportunity to hike up Anvil Mountain. There are also flights to Shishmaref to see the impact of climate change first hand and to Provideniya to learn about the World War II lend-lease program.  The cost of the excursions varies, up to $5,389 for the flight to Russia.

Nome Mayor Richard Beneville, who is now a tour guide for Northern Logistics, will take the day off from his official city duties to serve as “Mayor of Ceremonies” for the Serenity passengers. Along with greeting tourists, Beneville will be giving gold panning demonstrations.

Passengers will board the Crystal Serenity in Anchorage and travel through the Northwest Passage to the destination of New York City, with stops in Canada and Greenland along the way. According to Crystal spokesperson Molly Morgan, this is not the first time a ship the size of the 14-deck Crystal Serenity has sailed through the Northwest Passage. However, the ship will be the first luxury cruise to sail, and it will have the largest group of guests.

Specifically, Morgan said the ship will carry about 1,000 guests and 634 crew members. The cost is about $21,000 per person.

Cruise ships are the most popular way of traveling to Alaska, and climate change will likely make them even more popular, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website. The ocean is freezing later and melting sooner, which provides a longer time frame for ships to sail.

Beneville said he is excited for the town’s first luxury mega-cruise ship and for what it means for Nome and Nome’s tourism. Beneville, who recently sold his tour company to Northern Logistics, believes it is important for people to learn about Nome, and mega cruises will bring tourists to the town en masse.

The worldwide publicity surrounding the Serenity’s journey has made the ship a “buzzword” in Washington D.C., according to Beneville. “(Cruises coming to Nome are) not anything new, but the size of the Serenity has captured the attention of the nation,” he said. Johnson said she hopes that the increase in large cruise ships will help to generate more activities in Nome for tourists.

There are five cruise ships set to arrive in Nome this summer and the Serenity is by far the largest one. The Silver Discoverer will be in Nome on July 11; the cruise season ends with the Hanseatic, which arrives on September 10. None of these vessels will carry even half the number of passengers on the Serenity. At 480 passengers, Le Solei’s will be the next largest.

 Although Beneville acknowledges that the logistics of having an additional 1,700 bodies in town will be a challenge. “It’s a lot of people in our little bitty town,” he said. But Beneville is confident that, thanks to Johnson’s tour planning, everything will work out.

“It’s a signal of the future,” Beneville said of the Serenity’s journey, “I’m all for it, I’m pro development.” He said he is not sure that Nome will get many large cruise ships each year, but Beneville believes that the trend Crystal Serenity is setting will be good for Nome.

If all goes according to plan, Nome will host the Serenity again next year—Crystal Cruises plans to have the ship make the Anchorage to New York City trip again during the summer of 2017.

In March, Crystal Cruises announced plans to construct the world’s first purpose-built Polar Code compliant yacht with a PC6 Polar Class designation, the Crystal Endeavor. The ship will be able to sail through first year ice and float atop coral reefs. The yacht is planned to launch in August 2018.


              Environmental preparedness for the growing trend

Arctic tourism is good from an economic standpoint, but problematic from an environmental one. In light of the growing trend in Arctic traffic, Austin Ahmasuk with Kawerak’s Marine Program said the organization will watch closely to see how the Serenity impacts, or does not impact, the region. Specifically, he is concerned with noise, pollution and discharge and believes that it is vital to ensure that marine waters remain clean, and that there is no impact on marine mammals.

Going forward, Ahmasuk said, a concern is noise pollution from ships, something that is a concern in the North Pacific. “Obviously we don’t have that kind of traffic, but I believe it might still be a problem,” he said. Excessive noise can alter marine mammals’ migration patterns, which can make hunting difficult.

Beneville, too, said that increased traffic through the Northwest Passage poses threats for the subsistence lifestyle and also stressed the importance of communication between rural communities and outside entities.

Crystal’s Serenity will set a precedent for large luxury cruise ships in the Arctic, so they want to make sure things are done right. Preparations for the Serenity’s trip started three years ago. “Crystal management has worked closely with polar expedition experts, along with representatives from Transport Canada, the Canadian Ice Services, the U.S. Coast Guard, and Canadian Coast Guard, to examine the feasibility and scope of the transit,” Morgan wrote in an email to the Nome Nugget. Crystal is also working with communities in the Canadian Arctic.

To do ensure both environmental and human safety, “It is absolutely imperative that communities know what is going on,” Ahmasuk said. The communication has been sparse, but Crystal has been in contact with Western Alaska’s villages and tribes. Ahmasuk attended Crystal’s international mass rescue tabletop exercise last April, as did representatives from a few tribes. “It was a real eye opener,” he said, adding that Crystal is making inroads to become as environmentally friendly as possible. One of the ways the ship will reduce waste is by serving passengers packaged orange juice, instead of fresh squeezed.

However, communication does not necessarily equal preparation. The tribes were only allowed to be spectators in the tabletop exercise, which reviewed capabilities and limitations in Arctic emergency response. In the case of a major discharge or mass rescue, Ahmasuk said, the region is not prepared.

The Serenity has extensive response capabilities on board in case of a disaster, including forward looking sonar and thermal imaging equipment. For further protection, the ship will be accompanied by an escort vessel, the RRS Ernest Shackleton. The Shackleton will carry two helicopters to observe the ice conditions, and a remotely operated vehicle will be carried to observe subsurface conditions.  The Shackelton will also be equipped with additional response and damage control equipment in case of an oil leak.

The Nome Nugget

PO Box 610
Nome, Alaska 99762

Phone: (907) 443-5235
Fax: (907) 443-5112

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