Voluntary tour program gets update for 2001

Posted: Tuesday, March 20, 2001

Tour operators and city officials are trying to dispel what they say is the public's misconception that little progress has been made on minimizing visitor impacts.

In discussing guidelines for what has been known as the "voluntary compliance" program, operators and new city tourism specialist Nonna Shtipelman talked Monday about a promotional effort to get more operators involved and to educate the public about what has been accomplished so far.

They are refining the 2000 agreement for how tours are conducted, with willing operators scheduled to sign the new version in early April.

The voluntary guidelines - which are separate from existing city, state and federal regulations - cover routes and protocols for tour vehicles, aircraft and ships, and are aimed at reducing traffic congestion, noise and smoke, while reserving some recreational areas for local residents.

"Everybody wants this to be a success, and everybody wants to be able to sign it," said Kirby Day of Princess Cruises. "We're hopeful. I think we're coming up with about everything we can possibly do."

"We need to have reasonable expectations," Shtipelman said. "It's not going to fix everything."

Some name changes are in the works.

Instead of voluntary compliance guidelines, the group is now starting to refer to "best management practices." Use of the word "regulations" earned offenders a gentle hand slap during Monday's discussion.

"There's some baggage with the name voluntary compliance," said Bob Engelbrecht of NorthStar Trekking.

The program tentatively is being redubbed Visitor Industry Voluntary Actions, or VIVA, to cast the effort in an affirmative light, stressing private-sector initiative instead of government oversight.

Still, there is the potential for city regulation lying behind the voluntary process, said Juneau Assembly member Jim Powell, chairman of the Planning and Policy Committee. Voluntary compliance has been in lieu of regulation, agreed Assembly member Frankie Pillifant.

The voluntary compliance program began in 1997. It has been updated each year since.

Last summer, 41 tour companies agreed to participate, up from 33 in 1999, according to the city. Although there are many operators who do not participate, some of them perhaps because they don't know it exists, those who have signed the agreement have accounted for the vast majority of visitor traffic, Shtipelman said.

Shtipelman and Day both said the tentative 2001 draft differs from last year's program mostly in detail and in educational outreach efforts. There are only a few completely new guidelines, such as avoiding flightseeing directly above the John Muir Cabin east of Auke Bay.

In some cases, the existing guidelines just need to be more specific, Shtipelman said. For example, a flightseeing guideline on limiting impacts to backcountry users and wildlife should include specific minimum distances and altitudes, she said. She will continue to work with operators on that wording.

The current draft also calls for flightseeing operators to explain why they choose the routes they do, with the idea that people upset about noise might be mollified if they understand the reasons.

The city's seasonal tourism hotline will continue to provide a place for oral comments on tour operations, and citizens also will be able to e-mail comments in to the city's Web site.

Shtipelman had suggested a marketing effort in collaboration with the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau. But some operators were skeptical of that approach, saying they prefer to promote themselves and don't think it's appropriate to call visitors' attention to the internal tourism debate in Juneau.

Another procedural sticking point is who gets to sign off last on the final draft of the agreement. Day said that, in the past, tour operators have agreed to guidelines and then passed them on to city officials as an information item only. But Shtipelman said that in the end, the 2001 guidelines will be a city document.

"That's a drastic change," Day said.

"Ultimately, somebody has to be responsible for it, and in this case that somebody is the city," Shtipelman said.

The Planning and Policy Committee is scheduled to review the 2001 program on April 9. Chairman Powell said he's interested in seeing a methodology for measuring success in the program. Currently, the document doesn't offer any, aside from the hotline.

"I want measures for each of these items," Powell said.

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.

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