Locals who work with thousands of tourists annually hear some pretty interesting questions and have some pretty interesting stories to tell

Posted: Thursday, June 19, 2008

Some contend that there are no stupid questions, but people working in the tourism industry in Southeast Alaska sure hear a lot of wacky ones each year.

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Whether it's a tourist inquiring about the elevation while standing on a cruise ship dock or someone asking a Juneauite what it's like to sleep in an igloo, the list of baffling and comical questions never ceases to amaze some residents and seasonal workers.

"Some of these people have never seen an environment or a landscape like we have and when seeing it for the first time some of the questions that come out might seem a little bizarre to us," said Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center assistant director Wayne Ward. "But for those of us living up here in this environment, sometimes we take certain things for granted."

With nearly 450,000 visitors coming to see the Mendenhall Glacier each summer there is no shortage of odd inquires. Last season Ward said a woman asked him if the glacier was made of Styrofoam.

"I laughed because I thought she was making a joke and then I looked at her face and she wasn't making a joke at all," he said. "She was trying to fathom what she was looking at and for her it was all Styrofoam and she was quite serious. It got me flat-footed. I never had someone so genuinely ask, 'So this is Styrofoam?'"

Karla Maio said she has heard many perplexing and humorous questions while working in the tourism industry over the past decade. One year while employed as a bus driver she was asked what residents live in by a tourist as they traveled down Egan Highway.

"In my mind I was thinking, 'What does she mean what do we live in?'" she said. "I didn't want to insult her, and I said, 'You mean like homes and things?' And this is while we were driving by houses."

Ron, who manages four locally-owned stores and asked that his last name not be used, said he has heard many weird and wacky questions from visitors over the years. One year a couple of ladies came into one of the stores to look for souvenir T-shirts.

"They asked if we had a T-shirt with their favorite whale, 'the hunchback,'" Ron said. "I wanted to say, 'If this is your favorite whale you should probably know it's called a humpback, not a hunchback.'"

Busy at another task, Ron held his tongue and directed the two ladies to the back of the store where some T-shirt racks were located.

"I could overhear them, they were all excited and then I heard one of them comment, 'Oh, I can't believe it, we found T-shirts, it's got our favorite whale, the hunchback, on it,'" Ron said. "And her friend goes, 'Oh look they're made in Hanes. Aren't we going there tomorrow?' And I thought, 'I don't have any t-shirts made in Haines. And then I thought, 'Oh, like Hanes the underwear."

Terry Pyles, an artist and owner of Dockside Gallery in Ketchikan, has dedicated a page on his Web site to the subject titled "24 Alaska Facts to Help You Avoid the Pitfalls of Ignorance." The page has been periodically updated over the years, he said, with a variety of facts you might find in an almanac among vignettes you might find in a humor magazine.

The Web page includes a variety of tourist questions and other observations, from "How long does it take for a deer to turn into a moose?" to "Do you take American money here?"

Pyles said he took a cruise through Alaska earlier this season and was surprised to learn that some tourists are getting educated before arriving at port.

"I thought it was funny that the cruise director actually had his own top 10 list of the dumb things people say, and actually a couple of them were on my list," he said.

While any tourist is capable of asking a kooky question, Ron, Pyles and Maio all said their fellow countrymen are the most frequent offenders.

"I think it's pretty ubiquitous among travelers, but I think Americans are probably by far the worst," Pyles said.

Tourists too frequently get a bad rap and anyone is capable of sounding ignorant in an unfamiliar location, said Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau president and CEO Lorene Palmer. With more than a million visitors expected in Juneau this summer, the tourism industry is dealing with more money than silly questions, she said.

"If you think about the cash injection that will happen in our community over five months, cruise ship passengers on average spend about $186 per person while they're in town," she said. "If you do the math, that puts it at about $186 million (that) cruise passengers spend."

That being said, Palmer admitted that the bureau fields its fair share of the wacky questions.

"We've been asked how long does it take to drive to the top of Mt. McKinley. We've been asked if you can drive on the glacier," she said. "Alaska's environment is so mysterious to them a lot of times what would normally be a common sense thing to them, it just doesn't apply when they are traveling."

Ron said when not offensive the questions are more often rewarding than annoying.

"It makes your day because it's a story that you get to tell," he said.

Ron said one of the stories he likes to tell is about a tourist who came up to him in the middle of the day as a number of inebriated locals congregated in the heart of downtown.

"She whispered, 'So do Alaskans have a problem with alcohol?' And I looked at her and said 'No, where did you hear that? That's a horrible story. We love alcohol here. We drink it all the time. We don't have a problem with it at all.' That was my answer."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or

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