Some of Alaska's tour operators are crying foul at the governor's proposal to charge out-of-state tourists a $15 "wilderness conservation" fee, saying they would be more amenable to the plan if the money went to benefit the industry.
Revenue from the pass, estimated at between $7 million and $8 million, would be deposited into the state's general fund, which is used for governmental operations. According to House Bill 163, some of that money could be used for fish and wildlife management, viewing and education programs.
"We're concerned about targeted taxes on an industry that's already feeling the effects of global economic uncertainty," said Jerre Fuqua, spokesman for Cruise West, a tour operator that specializes in small ships and offers cruises to British Columbia, California and Latin America as well as Alaska. "I imagine that the industry would be supportive or more supportive of taxes when they're used specifically to help promote that industry."
Fuqua said his business could run into problems with the July 1 effective date, as his company already has sold cruise tickets for trips in July and might have to go back to customers and ask for an additional $15.
"There's all sorts of work in doing that - it doesn't happen magically - in our case, with a travel agent who's booked a client, making sure that someone's not going to change their mind for something like this," he said.
The Anchorage-based Alaska Travel Industry Association, a statewide nonprofit group that represents the industry, issued a resolution Saturday opposing the measure, said President Ron Peck. The group is participating in a legislative fly-in starting Wednesday and plans to discuss its objections with lawmakers.
"It's a targeted head tax. We have not been opposed to proposals for taxes that are much more broad-based in nature," Peck said. "The truth of the matter is the industry has been in decline. We believe a portion of that (revenue) should come back to the industry for marketing."
But John Manly, Gov. Frank Murkowski's spokesman, said the fee would not hurt the industry.
"There's a lot of things that the state government provides that benefits the tourist industry besides just tourism marketing. Like, for example, highways - they drive their buses on highways. For example, airports - they fly into airports. For example, docking facilities. There's a whole panoply of services the government provides everybody," Manly said.
But Peck said the tourist industry already pays fuel taxes and other levies that help maintain highways and airports and docks, just like everybody else.
He and Fuqua suggested the proposal wasn't well-conceived. Who exactly will collect the fee is unclear. The bill provides for fee collectors to receive 5 percent of the $15 fee, which works out to 75 cents a person, and specifies that collectors will be "state employees or other agents." Peck said the 75-cent commission doesn't change his organization's position.
Representatives of the North West CruiseShip Association and several major cruise ship companies did not return calls for comment by the Empire's midday deadline.
Peck said the bill also fails to make clear how the fee will affect tourists who have booked their tours but whose visits to Alaska will occur after July 1.
"Our businesses have done their planning for the '03 season already, and we don't know how you're going to administer and actually implement the billing," he said.
Not all tour providers oppose the plan.
Cyndi Isaak of Cyndi's Cruise and Travel said she doesn't think the tax will hurt her business.
"I would rather see taxes on the outsiders as opposed to the residents. There is wear and tear on our state with the high amounts of people that travel here, so I think it's a wise proposal," she said. "I'd like to see it all towards tourism, but I guess (the governor) has got other things he needs it for."
Masha Herbst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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