Holland America Line’s Fascinating Start in Alaska 70 Years Ago

"You will be spending time outdoors, in the mountains, near water" fortune, moose, pond

With Holland America Line celebrating its 70th anniversary in Alaska, I thought I’d share how this Dutch shipping company, which started in 1873 and was a leader in trans-Atlantic cruise and cargo ships, shaped the history of today’s Alaska cruises.

No one disputes the tenacity, creativity and adventurous spirit of those who built, and continue to build our largest state.  Those same attributes gave birth dozens of years ago to today’s strong tourism industry that enables hundreds of thousands of people to not only cruise, but also have so many options of seeing Alaska’s interior with a “Cruise Tour” package.

Seventy years ago, a bush pilot with a love of Alaska ran air tours to the lesser known areas of Nome and Kotzbue. It was Chuck West’s start in introducing people to a land he loved.

Then came one of those unassuming life-changing moments.  Mr. West was sitting in his Fairbanks office when two women walked in, asking if anyone offered a sightseeing tour of the area. There weren’t any.

Mr. West offered to take these women out in his 1936 Plymouth. They visited the museum at the University of Alaska, toured the town and saw gold dredges. He worked it out for them to go pick and enjoy local vegetables and wild fruit. Apparently, their day also included a flat tire and mosquitoes which were not in the impromptu plan. But the women were very happy with their tour.   Not only did Mr. West get paid for that day, but it literally and immediately opened the door to a successful sightseeing business.

His quickly devised tour fit our modern tour concept– Transportation, a city tour that included what made the area unique, a museum visit to learn more about the area and its history, hands on activities and food!

Eventually his company, Westours, included motorcoach tours, a hotel chain and chartered cruise ships.

Fast forward to the 1970s. Westours was sold to Holland America Line which became “Holland America Line – Westours.”  Years later, the reference to “Westours” was dropped.  With the addition of Westours, Holland America had a firm foothold in the later blossoming Alaska “Cruise Tours” combination and the only line at that point to include options to the Yukon.

“HAL” has created culinary, beverage, entertainment learning experiences to celebrate their 70th anniversary. These extend beyond the cruises to include benefits to guests staying at their property in Denali National Park.

It’s ironic to me that this is HAL’s 70th anniversary in Alaska and happens to be a record-breaking year for my agency on the number of clients we are working with to visit “The Last Frontier.”  Some by just a cruise. Others with a bit more time and money in their budget extend their trip by including an interior tour before or after their sailing.

This past spring, I had the opportunity to escort one of our groups aboard Holland America’s Eurodam to Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan and an afternoon in breathtaking Glacier Bay.  It was my fourth trip to Alaska, three of which have been by cruise ship. This trip was “cruise only” and was roundtrip from Seattle.  Each trip to Alaska always feels like a blessing to me.  It’s why I love working with people to get to Alaska. Why I love escorting a group and seeing the looks of wonder on our clients’ faces.

Our trip didn’t include a tour, but Holland America offers many options to visit some of Alaska’s interior before or after your cruise.  Many of the cruise lines sailing in Alaska offer the Cruise Tour option, but HAL is the only line that can combine Denali National Park with Dawson City in the Klondike Gold Rush country.

It’s not too late to visit Alaska this year.  It’s also not too early to book for the 2018 sailing.  Is Alaska calling your name?  Contact us so we can send you to The Last Frontier.

Happy Traveling!

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Sources: The Seattle TimesElmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Holland America Line’s Mariner

A book, “Mr. Alaska: The Chuck West Story : Forty Years of Alaska Tourism, 1945-1985” is available on Amazon.

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