Travel group expects drop in cruise contributions

Convention will tackle Forest Service fees, halibut limits and funding issues

Posted: Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Alaska Travel Industry Association is concerned it may see a drop in funding as some cruise companies opt not to contribute to its coffers because of increased taxes on the industry.

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The ATIA is holding its annual conference and trade show at Centennial Hall this week, with about 550 registered participants. Other topics the group will hear about are the new fee schedule proposed by the U.S. Forest Service to charge guides who use public land, and a new size limit on halibut for sport fishing.

The state appropriates as much as $5 million a year to the tourism marketing group, but that must be matched dollar for dollar in other contributions. About $2.6 million has historically come from members participating in marketing programs. Another $600,000 comes from regional visitors bureaus. The cruise industry has contributed as much as $2 million in past years.

"We are going to struggle very hard to get to the full match this year," said Ron Peck, ATIA's chief operating officer. "We are not going to get that contribution (from the cruise industry). Some companies will continue to make that contribution. Some have elected not to."

Peck noted that for every dollar the association doesn't get, it will lose another dollar in state appropriations.

He said the change comes from increased taxes on the cruise industry approved by voters last fall.

A new fee schedule is expected soon from the Forest Service to govern how it charges guides and tour operators on public lands it manages in Alaska.

Peck hoped there would be changes to the previous plan.

"The way they were going to assess the fees would have been cumbersome for tour operators and guides in Southeast Alaska," Peck said.

Forest Service spokesman Ray Massey said they received concerns about the first fee schedule proposal that came out last year.

"It's safe to say all those things were taken into consideration and some changes were made, but we don't know what (the final version) will look like yet because it's still under review," Massey said.

When the latest version is released, there will be another 30-day comment period. The fee schedule could be implemented by January 2008.

Peck said industry members are also concerned about a new sport-caught halibut limit that went into effect this season. Under the new regulations, the second fish caught in a day can be no more than 32 inches long.

Rick Bierman, who owns Whales Eye Lodge on Shelter Island near Juneau, said the limit had a big effect on both lodge-based and charter operators this year.

"It virtually cuts the catch limit in half," Bierman said. "Although they can still catch two fish, the meat yield on the second fish is about seven pounds, which drastically reduces the marketable expectation that operators can have, especially multiday operations and charter boats."

The second halibut can only be 32 inches, about 14 pounds of fish, but only 7 pounds of meat.

Bierman said normally those small fish would be thrown back. He said there's also discussion of a four-fish annual limit on halibut, which will "kill the lodge industry."

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