Ambassadors tour Alaska for big-time networking

June 22, 2011 

GIRDWOOD -- It was time for the ambassadors to break for lunch.

Ugandan diplomat Perezi K. Kamunanwire stood gripping a handrail inside the Mount Alyeska tram as it glided to the mountainside restaurant above. Kamunanwire watched patches of algae-covered snow through the window and wondered what the ski resort looked like in winter.

One of 37 foreign diplomats who are touring Alaska this week, he hoped for red meat on the menu.

"I'm a cattle man. I'm a beef fellow," said Kamunanwire, whose largely rural African nation is developing a fledgling oil and gas industry. "I would like to eat some moose before I go."

The diplomats' visit is part of a four-year-old federal program to get ambassadors out of Washington, D.C., and into cities and towns across the United States.

Last year the group toured the headquarters of CNN and Coca-Cola in Atlanta. The year before: The Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Organized by the State Department, the four-day Alaska visit is part vacation, part field trip. Many of the ambassadors brought spouses. They'll travel from Anchorage to Barrow to the Kenai Fjords, meeting with political and business leaders along the way.

This is the big leagues of networking. Oil company executives are pitching their drilling projects and safety plans, state leaders want foreign investment in Alaska and the ambassadors themselves -- from the Bahamas to the Ukraine -- are looking for ideas and stories to take home.

Kamunanwire said his country recently discovered major oil deposits and is now building a refinery. Maybe Alaska could help with the training.

"I would like to have some students here, young women and men from Uganda, who could come and learn the technology of oil and gas," he said.

The group on Wednesday rode tour buses to Alyeska Resort, where Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell hosted a mini-summit on global Arctic issues. The ambassadors sat at a row of narrow tables for a talk on trade routes and melting sea ice, walrus habitat and offshore drilling.

The diplomats were mostly men, mostly wearing dark suits, except Swedish diplomat Jonas Hafstrom in plaid.

Hafstrom stood up with a question.

The Alaskans had been talking about climate change, he noted. "Are you pushing for (an) ambitious global climate agreement?"

Treadwell talked about Alaska's efforts to develop wind and tidal power and a climate change subcabinet created under former Gov. Sarah Palin.

Asked later if he was satisfied with the state's reply, Hafstrom was, of course, diplomatic.

"I got very positive vibes," he said.

Some of the ambassadors represent countries that do brisk business with Alaska.

Renee Jones-Bos, representing the Netherlands, said her country is one of the state's largest customers, buying seafood and minerals. Netherlands-based Shell is trying to drill offshore in the Arctic and, according to Jones-Bos, partly sponsored the trip. A Shell spokesman said he couldn't say how much the company spent.

Shell Alaska Vice President Pete Slaiby was among the speakers on Arctic issues Wednesday.

State Department spokesman Kamyl Bazbaz could not immediately provide a total cost estimate for the trip, but said in an email that all ambassadors are asked to pay for their individual travel and lodging.

Today the diplomats are scheduled to travel to the North Slope and Barrow, with stops planned for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, the Kuparuk operations center and Barrow's Inupiat Heritage Center.

Given a choice of states to visit, the diplomats voted to tour Alaska, said Capricia Marshall, U.S. chief of Protocol.

The tour started Tuesday, though some arrived earlier and some will stay later with their spouses.

So far, the Bahamas ambassador has been surprised by how green Alaska is in the summertime. The Norwegian ambassador said Alaska looks much like Norway, just bigger.

Croatian diplomat Kolinda Grabar has been here before. She and her husband took a road trip along the Top of the World Highway and chipped their windshield.

Kamunanwire, the ambassador from Uganda, hoped to meet more Alaska Natives and was struck by the role the indigenous people of the state play in land ownership and development.

"Our natives don't really own anything," he said. "Most of the country's wealth is in the hands of investors."

As the ambassador talked, a Las Vegas couple holding ski poles as walking sticks eavesdropped silently. The tram swooped upward and hitched to a stop. Kamunanwire stepped out. The tourist couple followed.

In the kitchen, waiters prepared to serve lunch. No moose today, but a choice of scallop bisque or poached halibut, with baked Alaska for dessert.

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