Image: Skagway port of call
featurepics.com
During cruising season, the small town of Skagway, Alaska, is overwhelmed with passengers. While residents appreciate the revenue generated by tourists, many are frustrated with crowded streets and tacky shops.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/29/2009 9:04:44 AM ET 2009-09-29T13:04:44

The Alaska tourism season may be winding down, but the debate over its future is turning into quite a tempest. And unlike the storms that roll across the North Pacific this time of year, this one’s heading for court.

The issue at hand is the $50-per-passenger “head tax” that Alaska voters approved in 2006. Assessed exclusively on large cruise ships, most of the money ($46) was earmarked for port facilities and other infrastructure impacted by the nearly 1 million cruisers who visit the state each summer. (The other $4 is used to fund a corps of onboard observers tasked with monitoring the ships’ environmental compliance.)

In response, the Alaska Cruise Association, a trade group comprised of nine major cruise lines that sail to the state, recently filed a lawsuit, arguing that the fee is illegal. Among the complaints is the allegation that much of the revenue has been allocated to projects unrelated to port facilities and unused by cruisers. Cited examples include appropriations for state parks, city sidewalks in non-coastal towns and improvements to the Alaska Zoo, Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum and convention centers in Anchorage and Fairbanks.

For its part, the state faces the challenging task of defending the head tax without further offending an industry that delivers more than half its visitors every year. “The cruise industry and the 1 million passengers who come to Alaska every summer contribute significantly to Alaska’s economy,” said Attorney General Daniel Sullivan in a statement. Nevertheless, he added, “The Department of Law will vigorously defend the state in this lawsuit.”

Meanwhile, several major cruise lines, including Carnival, Norwegian and Princess, have already announced decisions to trim itineraries and pull ships from the state for 2010. Depending on who you talk to it’s either because of the head tax, the overall cost of doing business up north or the fact that the recession has dampened demand and made cheaper and more accessible Caribbean cruises more appealing to cash-strapped cruisers.

Specific cause(s) aside, it’s estimated that the cutbacks will mean that up to 100,000 fewer cruisers will visit the state next year. And that was before Carnival Chairman Micky Arison told Wall Street analysts last week that his company (which also owns Princess and Holland America) was likely to pull even more ships from Alaska in 2011.

Clearly, this is one storm that isn’t going to blow itself out any time soon. Then again, Alaska and the cruise industry have always had something of a stormy relationship.

Past as prologue
Pulling into Skagway in the early ‘80s, I got a firsthand glimpse of that relationship as a recently hired cook for a cruise line–owned hotel. Neither true local nor tourist, I often found myself in the middle of a debate between those who welcomed the summer crowds and those who wished they’d just go away.

In those days, the town (pop. 850) seldom saw more than one ship a day, each of which might carry 1,000 passengers. Sure, Broadway, the main drag, got crowded, but you could always get a table at the Sweet Tooth Café or a seat at the bar at the Red Onion Saloon.

Now fast-forward 20 or so years. Pulling into town again a few years ago, I was gobsmacked by the changes. Instead of one ship, there were three, each of which probably carried 2,000–2,500 passengers. With 6,000-plus cruisers unloading simultaneously, Broadway was more or less impassable, and while the Sweet Tooth and Red Onion were still there, they were joined by the likes of Del Sol, Tanzanite International and other absurdly out-of-place outposts of Caribbean kitsch.

And it’s not just Skagway. A recent editorial in the Juneau Empire bemoaned the “yuck factor” created by the dozens of jewelry stores and trinket shops along the city’s main tourist drag. Written, surprisingly enough, by a local economic development booster, the piece didn’t single out the cruise industry, but it doesn’t take an advanced degree in tourism management to realize that cruise ships and curio shops go together like buffet lines and bulging waistlines.

So, it’ll be interesting to see how the head-tax lawsuit plays out. Combined with the recession, the tax has clearly raised the stakes for both Alaska and the cruise industry, but it’s also sharpened a debate that’s been going on for decades. Tourism is a double-edged sword for any popular destination, and the challenge never goes away: How do you balance the sometimes-congruent, sometimes-conflicting needs of local communities, the cruise industry and the consumers who patronize both?

That’s a tough call — and one that probably won’t be resolved with a court decision. In the meantime, Alaska remains a world-class destination of stunning beauty and cruising offers a comfortable, convenient way to experience it. That said, a few fewer cruise ships crowding the docks might not be the worst thing in the world.

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments