REPORTER: Ginny Stein
Remote and wild, Alaska is one of the most beautiful places on earth.
But the very qualities that make it unique – its isolation and magnificent scenery – have made it a magnet for hordes of tourists.
BUCKWHEAT DONOGHUE, SKAGWAY VISITORS BUREAU: Welcome to Skagway everybody. Be ready to howl. Yeah!
Buckwheat Donoghue is in charge of promoting the town of Skagway. This was a town that all but died after the gold rush ended 100 years ago. Now it’s been revived by tourism.
BUCKWHEAT DONOGHUE: Hello, hello, welcome to Skagway. Have a good time. Welcome to the finest town in Alaska.
Single? Yeah, welcome to Skagway, baby!
Skagway’s usual population is about 800 people, but each day during a short summer season, the town is overwhelmed.
BUCKWHEAT DONOGHUE: Um, yeah, we’re kind of busy. There’s about 6,000 cruise line visitors in town, about 1,500 rubber-tyre folks. Alright.
Cruise ship passengers spend more than US$160 million a year in south-east Alaska.
REPORTER: So is this what you’ve come to Alaska for, to come and gamble?
MAN: No, not hardly, darling. This is just something to do for a laugh.
It’s the sort of bland cultural fare served up in tourist traps all over the world. But the visitors love it.
MAN: I enjoyed it thoroughly, it was great. I couldn’t think of anything better.
There’s no sign of any debate in Skagway about the benefits of mass tourism. A recent survey carried out by the tourist authority confirmed the town’s support.
BUCKWHEAT DONOGHUE: Over 92% of them loved it the way it is, right, because it does give us a good life. Because years ago, 20 years ago, the unemployment in Skagway was over 55% and the railroad had closed down and well, people were just down on their luck.
But as the dollars roll in and tourist numbers throughout Alaska continue to rise, a move to rein in the explosive growth has taken hold. And it’s the cruise ship industry that’s being targeted.
GERSHON COHEN, ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST: The large ships that you’re seeing behind me now are flying flags of convenience. They are flying Panamanian flags, they’re from the Bahamas, they’re from Liberia, and because of that, they don’t pay US income taxes. They don’t have to pay US wages and benefits. They don’t have to meet US standards for pollution.
Taking on the powerful cruise ship industry means that environmentalist Gershon Cohen is not the most popular man in Alaska.
GERSHON COHEN: The environmental issues related to the cruise ships are still unfortunately still very unresolved here in Alaska as well as elsewhere around the world. The large ships like the one behind me generates about 270,000 gallons a day of what’s called grey water which is laundry, galleys, sink, bath water and other types of waste. They generate about 30,000 gallons a day of sewage. They generate about 7,000 gallons a day of oily bilge water and often the oily bilge water’s contaminated with machine solvents and things from the machine shop on board. They generate about 11.5 tonnes of garbage. They run incinerators. The ships are floating cities. And in fact, here in Alaska, I mean they’re as big, or bigger than many of the cities that they actually come to visit.
Juneau is Alaska’s capital. Today is an average day for tourist arrivals. The town’s population has just jumped by a quarter.
JOHN STONE, PORT DIRECTOR: The good thing is it’s temporary so, you know, they come and they go and in this case the ship will be here for six hours.
John Stone is the port director and for him, bigger is better. Juneau currently takes five big ships but there are plans to expand the port to take seven or eight.
JOHN STONE: Some people, I think, reminisce about Juneau the way it was, you know, 30 and 40 years ago. They look back to the time when we probably had 50,000 to 100,000 cruise ship passengers per year and now we have 750,000 to 800,000 cruise ship passengers per year. So I mean certainly there’s been changes as a result of having to, you know, accommodate that many passengers but I think generally, you know, the economic opportunities have been favourable.
Not all in Juneau are convinced that the benefits of cruise ships outweigh the downside. Judy Crundall runs the longest established bed and breakfast in town with her husband Jay.
JUDY CRUNDALL: The peace and quiet is not here at all. People are – I mean, I go to other cities that are much bigger than Juneau and it’s much more quiet than it is here. It’s sort of a constant noise that goes on all the time. You know, you almost have to learn to not listen to it.
But the noise isn’t her main concern. She believes there’s something fundamentally wrong with cruise ship tourism.
JUDY CRUNDALL: You know, it’s always been said that travel broadens a person. But travel by cruise ships doesn’t do that because people who come on cruise ships are so overwhelmingly surrounded by other cruise ship passengers, by people who cater to the cruise ship industry, that they really don’t find out about the places they travel to. And that’s my – that’s my opposition to the industry is that it is so insular, so totally self-contained, so selfish that it really doesn’t do anything good for the communities that they visit.
Attempts to impose a tax on tourist arrivals have resulted in mixed success. Some residents believe there should be a strict limit on the number of cruise ships allowed to dock here.
JUDY CRUNDALL: We’re cheapening the experience for everybody, including those who live here. We should be saying “We have a limited capacity, we will sell this capacity or lease this capacity to the highest bidder.”
There is no doubt that Juneau has been transformed by tourism. And for environmentalist Gershon Cohen, parts of the town have become almost a no-go zone.
GERSHON COHEN: Honestly, I haven’t been down in this part of town for years. There’s really just isn’t anything to bring me down here anymore other than an interview because everything that’s down here now is geared towards the cruise ship industry. It’s just a string of shops that sell T-shirts and jewellery and trinkets. Things that say “I was in Alaska”. So that people can bring these things back to their relatives and their friends, I guess, and prove they were here. I’m not sure where they think they were.
But the majority of residents seem prepared to accept the tacky side of tourism for what they regard as longer-term benefits.
WOMAN: Actually, I usually don’t come downtown because it’s too busy.
REPORTER: What do you think about all the tourists?
WOMAN: It’s good for the economy, it’s good for the people here in Juneau. I think if we didn’t have it, Juneau would die.
But not everyone is as welcoming. Half a day away by sea at the town of Haines, the cruise ships have been given a frosty reception. The town voting to limit the number of ships allowed to dock. And in some places, helicopter flights are being restricted in an attempt to curb noise pollution. The cruise ship industry has retaliated by cutting donations to community programs and cancelling some visits. It seems some people are slowly beginning to take notice at the industry’s track record.
GERSHON COHEN: All of the ships that you’re seeing here, literally every major company that runs cruise ships, these foreign-flag cruise ships, has been convicted of felonies on multiple occasions over the last 10 years, over and over again, for dumping pollutants and for lying about it after the fact.
REPORTER: What’s it say that it’s happened so many times, that they’re repeat offenders?
GERSHON COHEN: What it says to me is they make more money by polluting than not polluting. Until we get a permit in place that allows them to be stopped completely from discharging, we’re not going to be able to control what the industry does.
While ever the big ships come and go, it seems there’ll be debate in Alaska about the real cost of the tourist dollar.