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 buses 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.
T.Ganner Photography workshops
Last night I saw my first “mega-ship” coming down the fjord from Skagway. Have a look and consider your options.
Norwegian Bliss is a cruise ship for Norwegian Cruise Line, which entered service on April 21, 2018. The ship was built by Meyer Werft in Papenburg, Germany. Wikipedia
Launched: April 21, 2018
Capacity: 4,990 passengers
Tonnage: 168,028 GT; 11,700 DWT
Yard number: S.707
Speed: 22.5 knots (42 km/h) (cruising)
I have visited SE Alaska via cruise ships 4 times via mid-sized ships (1200-1900 passengers). Each time my on-shore exploration created a visti-for-several-days entry in my bucket list. Haines is one of my favorite stops. Small and friendly where time seems to slow down.
It appears the cruise ship industry is mutating a mutualistic symbosis into a parasitic one. Larger town such as Juneau and Ketchican are better able to absorb and handle 1, maybe 2, mega-ships. As with any town, trying to handle multiple mega-ships (3 or more) would place a strain on the town’s infrastructure. Also, the cruise industry only has a presences May thru September. Therefore, why should the industry dictate a town’s annual budget?
I have booked tours thru the cruise line for convenience especially if it is my first tour in the town. Haines is an excellent. The photo tour was fantastic with my only compliant being it seemed too short! Because of the tour and my stroll around town, I want to spend several days in Haines exploring and experiencing the area.
Thanks for your thoughtful reply David … you got a taste of Haines, and we look forward to seeing you and Pat back for an extended stay!
I couldn’t agree with you more. As a 17 year resident of Skagway I have witnessed local business over-run by the same jewellry and souvenir stores found in Juneau, Ketchican and the Caribbean. Our infrastructure is hammered, our roads potholed, and our air polluted. Housing, especially for the 1000+ seasonal workers who make the tourist business here possible, is scarce and expensive. By August all the tour operators and staff are exhausted and digging pretty deep to offer our many thousands of guests the experience of the magic of Alaska – something we do very well seven days a week May through September. Currently the city is involved in negotiations with White Pass railroad on how to manage dock expansion to accomodate up to 4000 more cruise ship visitors per week by 2019. Hard to see how we will be able to handle the extra tourists with their demand for tours, food, restrooms, local transportation, and trash when we are struggling now with these issues. When every visitor who comes to town starts to look the same, it’s hard to deliver the experience of a lifetime to each and every one of them.
I can relate to that. I visited Alaska for the first time on a cruise ship – same hurried and mostly clueless tourist. I became a solo explorer, coming back many times, awed and enchanted, learning about nature, native culture, meeting locals, enjoying myself on my own time. I enhance my memories and experiences by joining many Alaska FB sites. They help me overcome my craving from visit to visit.
Wow, out of all our stops by far my photo outing with Tom was the highlight of my 7 day adventure! I looked into booking something through the ship, but was disappointed in the limits they offered. Once I entered the little town of Haines I looked into some options. Ran across a local that gave me a off the beaten hike and was speaking to a local photographer that made a call for a small group to Tom. Though he didn’t have any others interested (my bonus and their loss), he still agreed to take me out! What a dream experience, I couldn’t of asked for a better guide and photo expert! Tom showed me around, we see several wildlife and an amazing use of my camera. Best is he adapts to your expertise so he would be good for the beginner and someone that has experience! His services come with my highest recommendation!!! One word of advice only call him if your interested in a experience of a life time! Again, Tom thank you for the best day of my trip, a wonderful experience and thank you for all the tips as much as the beauty of Haines!!! Offer stands if your in my area lets work on catching that salmon! With much recommendation!