The other day during a discussion about the cruise ship industry, someone asked me why I was so down on the cruisers. My response that I was not totally against the industry was viewed with disbelief, an event that caused some reflection.
I'm not quite sure when it came to pass in Alaska that anyone who raises pointed questions about a practice or other activity is viewed with suspicion or even disdain, but that increasingly seems to be true in our state. Alaska was once regarded as a place where vigorous public debate among individuals was celebrated. Has the impact of big oil money led to a weakening of individual voices and a higher regard for institutional concerns compared to community values? One wonders whether we are returning to a time when outside interests dominate Alaska, as when the cannery interests controlled the Territory of Alaska.
Without question the cruise ship industry has been good for Alaska in some respects. Bringing tourists by the thousands to view the incomparable scenic splendors of the Inside Passage and Prince William Sound is a worthy endeavor. The employment associated with cruise ship tourism is positive in many respects. The economic activity associated with this growing industry is undoubtedly positive for some individuals.
So why is there so much arguing about cruise ship tourism? The benefits of large-scale cruise ship tourism are obvious, significant and concentrated. The problems associated with large-scale cruise ship tourism are chronic, spread as they are among the public who typically do not receive the concentrated benefits enjoyed by a relatively small number of tourism market participants. The ongoing fight over flightseeing noise underscores this phenomenon. A lot of people are bothered by flightseeing activity all day long without any apparent benefit.
Then there is the widespread perception that the cruise ships are dumping wastes into the marine waters and air of Alaska. While the cruise ship industry has and is endeavoring to clean up their pollution, the perception that cruise ships are polluting is based on documented felony convictions and confirmed by contemporary monitoring programs.
It is also significant that the foreign-flagged cruise ship industry has exempted itself from payment of income tax in Alaska. This same industry has also manipulated federal law to allow gambling in Alaska without payment of any tax on gambling to Alaska. The industry has also resisted payment of passenger ship fees used to make Alaskan ports better for visitors and locals alike.
Alaskans are growing weary of large, foreign-based firms manipulating the Alaska political system for their own narrow corporate concerns. Alaskans want tourists to visit our state but they expect a clean industry and an industry that pays its fair share of taxation derived from Alaskan operations. Cruise ship visitation has the potential to be a clean, sustainable industry, but only if it benefits a majority of residents.
Most Alaskans expect and are demanding that the cruise ship industry stop polluting our air and water. Most Alaskans harbor hope that this industry will start paying fair taxes and provide sufficient revenues to allow Alaska to improve port and visitor facilities while offsetting the impacts of thousands of visitors.
The governor and Legislature have commenced addressing the cruise ship industry's obvious pollution problems. The Legislature needs to address the revenue issue by adopting a balanced and fair revenue structure for the cruise ship industry that will properly serve Alaskans and tourist alike. And the Legislature should adopt a revenue measure that will prevent the industry from playing one community off against another with the threat of stopping local visitation at a particular port
Thus far the response of the foreign-flagged cruise ship industry has been to hire numerous high-powered lobbyists and fight against reasonable standards designed to protect Alaska's air and water. The industry has furiously resisted reasonable measures that would provide the state treasury and local governments with financial resources to deal with vastly increased tourism brought by cruise ships. Gov. Knowles has successfully raised attention on industry pollution bills. The Legislature has made a good beginning at addressing the environmental problems associated with this industry. The Legislature should complete its work on this topic by addressing a tax on passengers.
For what it's worth, that doesn't make me against the cruisers - it's what I think is best for Alaska.
Joe Geldhof of Juneau is a lawyer who serves as Alaska coordinator of Republicans for Environmental Protection.