B.C. cruising for tourists on their way to Alaska

Mar 20, 2003, vol. 26, no. 6
By Marianne Meadahl

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The ship may soon be in for B.C. coastal communities eyeing the potential expansion of the thriving Alaskan cruise ship industry.

Much can be learned from the northern destinations already accommodating shiploads of tourists, suggest researchers at SFU's centre for tourism policy and research.

A report prepared for the ministry of sustainable resource management by SFU graduate student Rahul Ray (right) and centre director Peter Williams examines how communities in Alaska are responding to a growing influx of visitors. The report focuses on the impact on the land and resource base and how destination sites are being managed and protected.

The industry in North America is in high gear as cruising becomes more affordable and popular. To meet the demand, cruise lines are offering bigger and better packages, while B.C. communities with hard hit economies are developing infrastructure that will enable them to tap into cruise ship tourism.

“It's a booming business,” says Williams, noting that ships are bigger, with some holding nearly 2,600 passengers. The number of excursions is on the rise and the client base has moved from the elite customer to a more middle of the road traveller, including younger passengers and families. Many are attracted to the chance for a unique wilderness experience and a vacation alternative to sun and sand, and more want to experience a range of shore-based activities.

Ray, a graduate student in the school of resource and environmental management, examined trends in shore-based activities offered by the major cruise lines and independent operators. Many of these vessels depart from Vancouver and increasingly, from the port of Seattle. Currently, once Alaska-bound ships leave Vancouver, they do not stop at any other Canadian ports.

He also visited two Alaskan communities, Juneau and Ketchikan, last summer, where he met with various stakeholders, including tour operators, representatives from government and community, cruise line personnel, and those with special interests, including First Nations and environmental groups. They say while many Alaskan port destinations have derived significant economic benefits through the development of the industry, each has faced land and resource challenges as a result of on shore-based cruise passenger activity.

In addition to a range of environmental issues that have arisen over the past decade, social issues, such as crowding at key sites, have emerged. Ray says supporting the integrity of the land and resource base has required ongoing planning and management.

Some of the most prevalent management issues that emerged in Alaskan cruise destinations include air-based sight-seeing and landing noise from helicopters and floatplanes, on-shore over-crowding, concerns over trail use and the management of wildlife viewing activities to avoid adverse impacts on the health and safety of humpback whales and bears.

Alaska's response to visitor growth and related impacts has been to produce numerous best management practices to address the potentially negative effects of cruise ship tour operations. Solutions include establishing sensitive flight routes, designating and monitoring landing areas, developing more options for on-land activities, creating distance boundaries, and implementing sensitive wildlife viewing practices.

Most shore excursion tours take place in regions within close proximity to the destination port, but the researchers say a small but significant number of tours are travelling much greater distances to view wildlife and access unique sites.

Nearly 800,000 passengers set foot in Vancouver annually, bringing in an estimated $1 million in revenue each time a ship docks. More than 700,000 passengers arrived last year in Juneau, where in 2000, they spent $74 million

As the Alaskan industry continues to grow, new ports are being sought to reduce congestion and provide new destinations for cruise passengers. Coastal B.C. communities may have an advantage. “Unlike Alaska,” Ray notes, “the North Coast has the opportunity to plan for the land and resource impacts of cruise tourism before its emergence in the area.”

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