Cruise Ship Tourism in Alaska
This blog will allow me to share my concerns about the quality of the tourism experience in Southeast Alaska. I have worked as a tour guide in Haines Alaska for the past eight years. It is a job that I have embraced and cherished. My interaction with visitors has encouraged my personal growth, generated friendships that have transcended the brief time we share in the course of a day-tour, and continually reminded me how lucky I am to live in this corner of Alaska as I watch the earth-bound jaws of my tour guests. I like tourism as an industry. It is a relatively clean industry based on sharing the good times we locals enjoy.
Having said that, I have a growing concern about the quality of the experience that visitors to Alaska are afforded. Haines is a relatively small town of 2500 people and 500 dogs. We can dock one ship at a time, and generally few ships stop here (perhaps because there are no cruise-line-affiliated stores or tours). People are drawn to Alaska for the scale and pristine quality of a natural environment that is largely unsullied by the impact of growing populations and development. Many people are drawn to Haines specifically for the quiet nature of our community, and the experience of a small town and its rural wonders and treasures that are off the beaten track.
Last week we had a ship in dock that contained more people than the population of our town. Tour busses lined up at the dock ready to escort droves into the quiet corners that provide opportunities to behold wildlife and the natural world that make Alaska a destination of choice. In comparison to larger tours, the company that employs my services for photography tours never sends me out with more than 12 guests, often fewer. (Photography tours seem to be dropping off as increasing numbers of people embrace the smart-phone phonography bug … I get it, and often share the joy of the convenience.) I promised my guests that I could deliver to them the experience of Alaska they had come to find, away from the ships and the shops, in favor of one of the most pristine salmon streams and spruce forests left in North America.
I have several stops I like to make along the river. At every preferred location, I arrived in our vehicle to find buses and droves of people wandering and watching and occupying the ground. At each spot, I chose to move along and find an area that was not overrun, with the idea of returning at a later time when the congestion would perhaps have moved on. (I have used the same strategy at amusement parks … upon entering the main gate at the opening bell, I head directly to the back of the park while most folks are boarding the near rides, and move my way toward the front of the park as the day moves along. The strategy generally works in giving us shorter lines.)
I understand why people want to experience Alaska via a cruise ship. It is a safe, well-orchestrated and organized way to cover a lot of ground and maximize sightseeing and tour opportunities in a relatively limited time fame. Many travelers on cruise ships are not physically able to handle boldly going where few men have gone before. It is the perfect means to enter and enjoy a country that does not immediately lend itself to easy access. I get it. My concern is how does one enjoy the quiet peace of a natural environment from within a directed crowd. Let’s face it, the world is getting crowded. When I was born in 1952 the world population was 2.6 billion people. We are now at 7.5 billion people in 2017. It feels more crowded, and I think that is why folks want to see what we call “the last frontier.” Increasingly it feels like tourism is resembling a cattle drive.
And it is about to get worse. Our neighboring town of Skagway is a major tourist destination compared to the community of Haines. The household population of Skagway is just over 900 people. Summer visitation comes in at around 900,000. Skagway can dock up to five ships at a time, and as many as 10,000 people can visit this small town in a day. Currently the town is under pressure from the cruise industries to expand its waterfront infrastructure to accommodate the new “mega-ships” that are destined to arrive by 2019, bringing yet more visitors to town. Studies have concluded that if Skagway did nothing to expand its visitor capacity it would continue to make more money every year, but just not as much “more money.” The town must seek help from an outside tour company to afford the improvements, who then put the town under pressure to provide it favorable treatment in future waterfront leases. (It is not my intent to delve into this aspect of negotiations, which well may benefit everyone in the long run.)
Question on the table: does continually expanding the cruise ship industry serve in any way to enhance the experience of the visitor to Alaska? The appearance is that marketing and profitable returns are driving the decision-making process. Quantity over quality. Another frustration for the local towns is that the cruise ship industry becomes far too influential in the local decision-making process. Local tour companies cannot adjust their prices to accommodate inflation without the approval of the cruise companies who help market the tours. They will often dictate what services will be provided (case in point, one ship-line insisted we provide a sit-down lunch in a restaurant to guests who booked a photo tour when in fact they unanimously agreed they would rather have a bag lunch and continue the tour as photographers). Quantity and profit returns drive the day. Quality of experience to the consumer often takes the back seat, and many seem content to enjoy what is offered.
I absolutely enjoy what I do for our guests in Alaska. I enjoy sharing the quality of a land so large it supports wildlife populations that have been otherwise displaced and eliminated in so many parts of the world. I want to continue to share the best of Alaska, and introduce “the Alaska of your dreams” to visitors and guests. Having said that, I will say this is the last year I will continue to work within the industry and lead tours from the ships and dodge the crowds that are being directed by the ever-expanding number of tour companies in town. I understand that the cruise ship is the best option for many people. I want to engage with the special souls who want an experience that transcends the herd mentality of the transient visitor. Consider making Alaska (and perhaps Haines) a destination where you can spend a few days or a week or a month as time permits and take the time to discover and uncover the layers that reveal new secrets every day. There is more to the land and its inhabitants, its history, and culture, than meet the quick eye. Come and discover the real Alaska. It will require some relative solitude that will awaken your soul.
If you would like to consider making Haines your destination, I do offer secluded lodging and personalized and custom photography workshops, and invite you to explore the following links. I am happy to answer any questions and queries you might like to pose.