Let tourists really experience Alaska

Alan Boraas

According to a recent news item by KBBI's Aaron Selbig, come September Anchorage, Kodiak and Homer will no longer be ports of call for Holland America's 14-day Alaskan Explorer cruise. This package has reportedly been sold out for every cruise since its inception two years ago and has received rave reviews from tourists traveling aboard the 1,300-passenger MS Amsterdam.

According to Holland America's website, the cruise leaves Seattle and stops at the usual places for fleece and T-shirts, Ketchikan and Juneau. The Amsterdam then heads across the Gulf of Alaska and up Cook Inlet to Anchorage where the cruisers get 16 hours to poke around. Then it heads down to Homer for eight hours of shore leave and next on to Kodiak for another eight hours to experience Alaska. The cruise then sails back across the Gulf to Sitka by way of Hubbard Glacier then back to Seattle.

The trip costs between $1,700 (no cabin window) and $4,000 (window) per person not counting fleece and T-shirts. Matching jogging suits are not required. (I wonder if tourists are included in the dead-last ranking of Anchorage by the fashion police.) Personally, I love to see retirees from the Lower 48 coming to Alaska for the trip they've always wanted to take but never had time for. I love it when they are excited to see an eagle or moose or marvel at the majesty of the mountains. And it must be pretty cool for them to walk real Alaska working harbors and see "Deadliest Catch"-type guys and their boats up close.

Not that I'd ever want to go on a cruise. Fourteen days with 1,300 people I don't know would only be slightly worse than 14 days on a ship with people I do know. But they're presumably having fun and now that the harbor toilet-flushing issue seems to be resolved to Anchorage standards, where's the harm?

So, what's the problem? Why cancel a profitable cruise?

Apparently for even greater profits. Eric Elvejord, Holland America public relations director for the giant cruise company, told Selvig the company has chosen to direct its energy toward utilization of "other Alaskan assets," meaning the hotels, motor coaches and rail cars the company owns. Corporate tourism maximizes its profits by controlling the activities of its clients. Cruise companies make the most money when their tourists travel on company-owned ships, are transferred to company-owned tour buses, are brought to company-owned hotels, fed at company-owned restaurants, and buy souvenirs at company-owned gift shops. Alaska supplies the scenery and weather for free.

There's too much independence on the Alaskan Explorer cruise, consequently Holland America is dropping it for other trips that don't involve passengers the freedom to shop or explore non-Holland America venues for extended periods of time.

I get the part where most tourists are not physically or mentally equipped for even a small foray into the Alaska wilderness and are best kept on a ship or a bus for their safety and comfort. But the Homer Spit, with the exception of occasional nights in the Salty Dawg, is not exactly wild country and probably has more artists per-capita selling their creations than anywhere in the country. Art is better than fleece. Kodiak can also be a little rough but not in the wonderful Alutiiq Museum and other historic sites of interest. And Anchorage is the United States' only subarctic city; a place to observe first-hand what we have done on the northern landscape.

Holland America, Princess Tours, and other corporate tour companies can organize their business any way they want as long as it doesn't cost Alaska taxpayers any money. But it does cost Alaska taxpayers. State tourism funding is around $12 million annually; much of it from car rental taxes. A significant portion of this funding is diverted to the Alaska Travel Industry Association for tourism marketing to help fill ships like the MV Amsterdam (a representative of Holland America sits on the 25-member board). That gives taxpayers a dog in this fight.

The number of tourists that visit Alaska each year exceeds the number of Alaskans. If state money is going to help bring tourists north, we want them to have a complete, thoughtful experience. That Alaska experience should not be limited to being herded by the corporate tourist industry. Give those that want it the option to experience the Alaska they always wanted to visit.

Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.