When people tell me that they’ve gone to Alaska, I prick up my ears. When they tell me they traveled on a cruise ship, part of me stops listening. No, you didn’t really go to Alaska, I want to say—you just think you did. And your trip—perhaps months, years, or decades in the past—may have left remainders, from garbage to pollution to lost dollars for local economies, whose effects will linger for a very long time.
Increasing numbers of people take cruise ships to Alaska. The projected total for summer 2016 was over 1 million people, and this number does not factor in the crewmembers and other support staff responsible for caring for all these passengers. For some perspective, Alaska’s population is approximately 737,000; this means that cruise ships visitors represent a number significantly in excess of the state’s permanent population. Taking a look at one of these cruise ships, which can often contain thousands of tourists, docked in towns such as Seward, Ketchikan or Juneau is to see striking contrasts between ship and town that may seem amusing—who thought a ship could tower over a town—but also thought-provoking. For example, I’ve visited Juneau’s main public library, situated in a building by the water that is one of the stage capitol’s larger buildings—a building that is regularly dwarfed by the Brobdingnagian cruise ships in the harbor nearby.
Cruise ships, and tourism in general, in Alaska raise a number of complex issues. Tourism has long been a staple of the Alaskan economy, becoming particularly important in the years in which oil and gas profits have declined, as is currently the case. Tourism seems to offer many benefits, including a chance for locals to share some small measure of the state’s incredible beauty with outsiders in exchange for substantial profits for stores, tour companies, and restaurants—oh, yes and the chance to educate visitors about the state and enjoy a cross-cultural exchange.
This all sounds very nice, yet not much of the money spent by those thousands and thousands of passengers, crew, and staff actually goes to Alaskans or stays in the state to benefit local infrastructure. For one, many cruise ship passengers sleep, eat, and shop on the ships, only leaving the ships and visiting Alaskan villages and cities for a little sightseeing or to catch a plane home. Second, many of the shops that the tourists visit or the sightseeing tour companies that they use for helicopter rides, dogsledding excursions, or salmon barbecues are not owned by Alaskans but by individuals, or corporations, from Outside, and the employees of these companies are often not locals either.
And even the benefit of tourist dollars may not offset the damage, environmental, financial, and cultural, these visits can cause. In one of the more spectacular examples of overt physical damage, in June 2016 a Celebrity Cruise ship, the Celebrity Infinity, a massive ship with 12 decks, a reported 91,000 tonnage, and occupancy for 2,170 passengers, crashed into part of the dock in the Ketchikan harbor, causing 2-3 million dollars in damage. Video of the crash on sites such as YouTube show a enormous ship—like a prone, floating skyscraper—pulling alongside the dock, the sheer size and weight of the vessel, aided by 45 mph winds, moving it closer and closer to the long metal dock until the dock crumbles, pieces of it falling into the churning water, other pieces twisted like taffy, as dock staff exclaim in alarm. Even when the ships dock safely, releasing thousands of people suddenly into small towns creates challenges for those towns and their permanent residents, from traffic jams to an overflow of garbage. For example, an August 21, 2016 Alaska Dispatch News story detailed the problems faced by the residents of Talkeetna every summer as they navigate around the 300,000 tourists who visit the town each summer; Talkeetna has 700 permanent residents.
Beyond these problems, there is also the significant, and potentially lasting, environmental impact of these cruise ships and their visitors. According to information posted by staff from the environmental organization Friends of the Earth on the Friends website, each cruise ship can dump 210,000 gallons of human sewage into those clear waters that tourists have traveled so far to see, while air pollution clouds the view of Alaska’s glaciers and forests. Additional waste includes an average of 1 million gallons of graywater dumped, as well as bilge water, garbage, and the delightfully named sewage sludge.
Alaskans have tried to regulate this pollution, with residents even voting for further restrictions on cruise ship pollution—an effort apparently overturned by the state’s own political representatives, bowing to the power of the cruise ship lobby. Recent stories in the Alaska Dispatch News and The Juneau Empire reveal that while there are been some significant violations of pollution restrictions for some years, little or no citations have been given by state environmental officials, basically allowing the cruise ship operators carte blanche to keep profiting from the beauty of the Last Frontier while paying no price; instead, it is Alaskans, wildlife, and the Alaskan ecosystem that are taxed, perhaps beyond measure.
So, what about that cruise ship trip to Alaska? Well, Friends of the Earth does provide a grade sheet on their website, offering information on the best—and worst—of the bunch as far as pollution, so there potentially opportunities to visit with less significant impact. Or if water travel is essential, consider taking the Alaska Ferry system, which travels through many of the same Southeastern Alaskan destinations as the cruise ships. Or send that cruise money to a charity dedicated to environmental protection or to nurturing the next generation of Alaskan small business owners, artists, and environmentalists, stay comfortably at home, and put on your favorite movie or TV show about Alaska and enjoy some virtual tourism: future generations of Alaskans may thank you for it.