Skagway, tour operators, battle over bus

Posted: Monday, May 08, 2000

Skagway's new city bus solved one problem and created another.

On Sunday, Skagway Municipal And Regional Transit, or SMART, began picking up passengers from the edge of one of two cruise ship docks and, for $1, took them to stops in the downtown tourism district. Along the way, it passed by vendors selling tours from a city-designated site.

Five years ago the city sold five permits, at about $5,000 apiece, for vendors to hawk their tours 100 feet from the two cruise ship docks. To get to downtown Skagway, tourists had to walk by the tour vendors. That's still the case at one dock, but at the other, they can take the bus.

``So they sell us a selling area, and then they transport all the people around it,'' said Greg Clem, general manager of Klondike Tours. ``It's pretty shady if you ask me.''

Clem said the new bus route will take half his business, as it bypasses one of his two tour-selling locations. On its first day of operation, a sunny one, 40 percent of the cruise ship passengers took the shuttle and Clem's sales were down 30 percent from past years, he said. He and the other tour operators make 95 to 99 percent of their sales to people passing by.

``If I'm lucky, I'll break even for the season,'' said Clem, who spent $15,000 preparing for summer tours.

Some of the tour companies are already talking about cutting back their staff, Clem said. Chad Fahringer, owner of Goldrush Tours, expects the change in bus stops will hurt his business too.

``I definitely think it's a breach of the contract that we had come up with five years ago,'' said Fahringer. ``We're going to be approaching the city, trying to get (the bus stop) moved back to where it was originally located.''

But City Manager Bob Ward sees no reason to move the bus stop from the edge of the dock. The Skagway City Council approved the stop 4-1 Thursday night.

``Somebody wanting a ride to town should not have to walk any farther than necessary,'' Ward said. ``The convenience of our visitors supersedes the perceived needs of these operators to have access to every visitor.''

The SMART bus was the city's answer to a fleet of competing private shuttles that used to carry passengers from the dock to town. Those shuttles brought complaints because of the hard sell used on some to sell tours. Because the shuttles sold tours, the city required them to stop on the far side of the dock from the permitted tour vendors, so tourists passed the vendors on their way to the shuttles.

The competing shuttles reached a crisis last summer when Princess Tours threatened to start a shuttle of its own. The city's solution was to contract with one company for municipal transit, and put all the other shuttles out of business.

``We've reduced traffic flow. We've provided reliable transportation,'' Ward said. ``Granted, that will be somewhat at the expense of the permitted vendors.''

The tour vendor permits run out after this season anyway, and may not be renewed, Ward said. ``Whether we offer the permits again will be highly dependent on what we see happening on the waterfront this year.''

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