Travel Trends: Cruising in Alaska is up, so why are people angry?

Alaska: The “Last Frontier.”

It’s a trip of a lifetime for many of us. We imagine towering snow covered peaks with flowing glaciers draping down their sides, eagles soaring overhead while brown bears pluck spawning salmon from wild rivers right in front of our camera lenses. In short, we dream of a pure untouched landscape straight from a lost primordial world. And in truth, this beauty and peace is just what most visitors to Alaska find.

Within the state, however, there has been a battle raging. Statewide tourism has seen a steady and substantial increase in the last decade. The recently published Alaska Visitor Statistics Program Report (opens in PDF) sponsored by Alaska’s Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development (DCCED) shows a 25% increase in total visitors to the state between 2001 and 2008. The same report documents a nearly 30% increase in visitation via cruise ship travelers (Fig.1 “Total Visitors to Alaska Vs. Those Visiting via Cruise Ship Tour”). And there-in lies the seeds of debate.


This level of growth has come at the expense of other forms of travel.The ferry and highway systems have seen a 90% and 50% decrease, respectively, in non-resident use over the same time frame (Fig. 2 “Alaska Visitor Travel Methods”). The impression is that this trend is the result of a concerted effort by the DCCED and the Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA) to promote cruise ship tourism above others through marketing, infrastructure development, and the creation of a favorable, industry-specific business environment.

Fair or not, arguments against increased cruise ship-based tourism tend to be based around environmental worries — in short, the fear of negatively affecting the pristine environment that visitors come to see in the first place. These concerns came to a head in 2006. A citizen’s led initiative passed state wide elections to impose a $46 head tax on all cruise ship passengers.

This resulted in key industry leaders decreasing the number of tours they run in the Alaskan market. This, in combination with the national economic situation, has caused an estimated loss of nearly 140,000 visitors to the state… with fears of greater losses to come. The Alaska Cruise Association (ACA) simultaneously brought suite against the State of Alaska in federal court on grounds of unfair taxation. The Alaskan legislature responded by passing a bill to lower the head tax if the ACA agreed to drop the suit — which of course they did.

All of which makes for a great case study on the politics of grassroots environmentalism, state government, and big industry, but what does it indicate for the average traveler looking to finally take that once-in-a-lifetime trip to Alaska?

First, because there are less ships plying the waters than in the last few years, cruise prices have risen back to pre-recession levels — or nearly so — at around $600 from a low of nearly $350 just last year. Waiting lists are also, once again, often a reality. Not good news for the bargain traveler, but once off ship, many of the private tour companies, gift shops, and restaurants are offering deep discounts to attract customers.

However, beyond the monetary disappointments, there is a silver lining. Lower visitor numbers allow for a more intimate experience with the natural landscape — which is the main reason most travelers go to Alaska in the first place.

[Data sources: Alaska Visitor Statistics Program V, Interim Visitor Volume Report, Summer 2008 (Opens in PDF); and Department of Commerce, Community, & Economic Development]

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