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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Hold the dog, please. China’s proposed ban on sale of dog and cat meat

Most people will agree that dog is man’s best friend. In parts of Asia, however, it’s also what’s for dinner. The consumption of dog and cat meat by humans is practiced in parts of China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Philippines. Cat is eaten in parts of China and South America. The times they are a-changin’, however, because the Chinese government is considering legislation that would make eating dogs and cats illegal there, in part because of how the practice negatively impacts overseas tourism.

The Chinese government has signaled a willingness to take the meat off the market. To avoid upsetting international visitors during the Beijing Olympics, officials ordered dog meat off the menus at local markets. Officials in Guangzhou have warned vendors to stop selling it ahead of the Asian Games, which will be held there later this year.

Professor Chang Jiwen of the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences is one of the law’s top campaigners. “Cats and dogs are loyal friends to humans,” he said. “A ban on eating them would show China has reached a new level of civilization.” Anyone else finding irony in that statement, considering 2007’s massive pet food recall — the result of melamine-tainted exports produced in China?

While inconceivable to most North Americans and Europeans, these animals have been used as food for thousands of years, usually for purported medicinal purposes, although poverty also plays a role in some countries or regions.

While owning dogs and cats for house pets isn’t the norm throughout Asia, it’s certainly common in China. But the roles of ingredient and animal companion never cross: special meat markets exist that cater exclusively to the sale of dogs and cats for the meat trade. Chang cautions, however that there is always a chance they’re someone’s lost or stolen pet.

Regardless of how you feel about dining on dog, the most critical issue regarding this “specialty meat” trade is animal welfare. The animals can be kept in horrifying conditions until they’re sold at market, and subjected to cruel, inhumane treatment. And before you condemn certain cultures as barbaric, take a second to think about the conditions in puppy mills and factory farms in the United States. Livestock sold at auction for the commercial meat market, and live meat animals and poultry at slaughterhouses may also be subjected to inhumane treatment. The U.S. government is cracking down on these abuses, but factory farms don’t appear to be going away anytime soon.

The ban on eating dog and cat meat is part of a larger proposal to toughen laws on animal welfare. Individual violators could face up to 15 days in prison and a small fine. Businesses found guilty of selling the meat risk fines up to 500,000 yuan ($73,500.)

The legislation is gaining support from China’s growing number of pet owners. With living standards rising and disposable income growing, more Guangzhou residents are investing in house pets.

Meat vendors and specialty restaurants, however, see their livelihoods at stake.”The dogs you raise at home, you shouldn’t eat,” says Pan, a butcher who also declined to give his first name. “The kind raised for eating, we can eat those.”

According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the law prohibiting cat and dog meat could take as long as a decade to pass.


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Congress to end long flight delays

The business travel community is siding with Congress on a new law that would address flight delays on the tarmac. The Business Travel Coalition, which represents the travel departments of 300 companies, is announcing today that it supports a new law that would give passengers some elbow room when a plane’s stuck on the ground.

If a plane is delayed for three hours or more on the tarmac, according to the bill, airlines would have to let the passengers get off the planes. This would provide welcome relief in among the gloomiest of travel situations. And, it could work to the airlines’ favor – though they wouldn’t admit it – as it would prevent negative public relations situations due to poor judgment. There have been enough delays to warrant at least the introduction of a bill, so there’s obviously a problem.

The Business Travel Coalition made the decision after surveying 649 corporate travel departments, travel agents and business travelers. More than 90 percent of the corporate travel departments and approximately 80 percent of travel agents and business travelers support the proposed rule. The National Business Traveler Association and American Society of Travel Agents have both come out in favor of the bill.

Since January 2007, USA Today reports that in excess of 200,000 passengers have been stranded on more than 3,000 planes for at least three hours after pushing back from or while waiting to approach a gate. There were 278 flights in this situation in June 2009 alone. While this is still a small portion of total passenger traffic, 200,000 people is a statistic that’s hard to ignore.

The issue of long tarmac delays was triggered recently by a Continental Express fight that was stuck on the ground in Rochester, Minnesota. The Senate has approved a version of the bill with the three-hour rule, while the House of Representatives has passed a less specific version, requiring that airlines submit a plan to the Department of Transportation for letting passengers off in the case of a long delay.

The Air Transportation Association is against the bill, though it calls long delays “unacceptable” (not exactly a hard position to take). The vice president of the ATA, David Castelveter, claims that airlines have contingency plans to deal with these situations and can handle the situations themselves.

According to USA Today, he says, “We continue to believe that a hard-and-fast mandatory rule for deplaning passengers will have substantial unintended consequences, leading to even more inconvenience for passengers and, ultimately, more flight cancellations.” He also explains that airlines have spent more money and invested in new technology to improve the service they provide.

Of course, we see how well that’s worked over the past three years for enough people to comprise a small city. I’m not a big fan of Congressional involvement, but it’s clear the airlines can’t handle this one on their own: they’ve proved it too often.



Bag too big? Check with Congress

Every carry-on could become a federal case, so to speak. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-IL, has proposed legislation that would cap the size of each carry-on. Right now, airlines are left to their own devices, leading to a bit of confusion for fliers who use several carriers throughout the year. Since a de facto industry standard hasn’t emerged, Lipinski feels it’s a job for the folks in Washington.

Lipinski is quoted in USA Today as saying, “It’s clear if anything is going to be done, it’s going to take an act of Congress to do it.” The airlines aren’t enforcing the restrictions that they’ve enacted, he continues.

As with anything regarding Congress – and, for that matter, airlines – the public is divided. Supporters are glad to see a proposal that would keep oversized bags out of overhead spaces, seeing it as a safety measure or simply an increase in available space (they fill up quickly with large bags). Of course, on any flight, you’ll find people on the other side, passengers who refuse to check luggage and would cram a compact car into the overhead bin if they could.

Available space in the overhead compartments has become a problem recently. With airlines cutting flights in an effort to reduce costs, the remaining flights are becoming more crowded – as are the storage spaces.

The Air Transport Association, an industry trade group, doesn’t see overhead storage spaces as a matter for Congress. Instead, he believes it should be left to the airlines to decide.