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Pamela Wight

A Century of Change in Alaska: Tourism and the Environment


The title selected for this on-board lecture was deliberately broad -- so that I could refer to any number of sights and experiences as we retraced Harriman's steps; and so as to incorporate the many dimensions which are required to understand sustainable tourism. Tourism has become a major global industry, with the potential for significant negative or positive effect -- on people and communities, the local economy, the local culture, the environment, and even on tourists themselves. In addition, everyone tends to feel some sort of expertise about tourism, since everyone is a tourist at some point, but they may well have only a very partial perspective.

There were a number of points I wanted to convey -- that tourism is a complex and far-reaching industry; that the apparent effects of tourism are almost certainly less than the actual effects; that appropriate management of tourism is critical -- it just won't develop the "right way" all by itself; that local communities and cultures need to be involved in and take control of decision-making to achieved their vision for the future; and that there are tools to do this. For example, Aboriginal communities today are increasingly deciding that tourism must fit into their way of life, rather than vice versa, so they are placing controls of tourism &endash; of space, activities, timing and of cultural sharing. It was useful to be able to incorporate my research findings en route, such as the fact that the individual who "willed" Garnett Ledge to be mined only by the children of Wrangell, has enabled local youth to earn significant dollars from the summer tourist industry, such that they can contribute to their school clothes or books, their church, or to their future. Thus tourism, plus local foresight, has enabled one such youngster to save enough over the years to go through college and he is now a doctor.

I also wanted to touch on the fact that there are a range of types of "offerings" and experiences possible in any destination (the supply end of tourism), and equally, that there are a range of types of visitors and markets (the demand end). For example, a number of people feel somehow that their expedition cruise boat is preferable to a large cruise boat. Whereas others may feel that kayaking is preferable to cruise boats of any scale. Thus actual local examples reveal a spectrum of markets.

In addition, I used original Harriman Expedition commentaries to highlight attitudes and opinions about Alaska's environment, resources, and Native peoples. Many of the 19th century comments conveyed the sense that Alaska was a massive land of untapped resources, ready for exploitation, and that cheap labor (whether Natives or imported Chinese) was similarly available to be exploited.

I wanted to demonstrate that only in rare instances is "boom and bust" a satisfactory tourism outcome as, for example, with Skagway's winter and summer season. Thus I used the portrayals of "waves" of plenty and scarcity, with 1899 evidence of natural resource abundance/ exploitation and subsequent scarcity, the bustle of thriving gold rush towns contrasted with the desolation or abandonment of others, and the annual waves of tourists in the summer months followed by a long slow winter, or even the present-day mini-waves of tourists flowing on and off cruise ships.

All too often it is thought that to be successful, growth (i.e., more) is the answer. Whereas, nature provides abundant examples that to sustainable, there needs to be diversity with this increase in size. There are good reasons, for example, why there are no elephant-sized mice! I like the idea of strength through diversification for both ecology and the economy. Economic development is not just "more of the same," since one can't maximize economically, except in the short run, and one certainly can't incorporate other perspectives such as environment, society and culture and take a maximization approach. It was very evident during the Gold Rush that the only consistent success stories were the diversity of middlemen -- those who serviced and supplied the miners through a variety of services such as breweries, restaurants, saloons, curiosity and general stores. Similarly, in tourism there is strength in diversity -- of types of tourism markets, modes of transportation, cultures promoted, activities offered, seasons marketing, and key icons used. I wanted to use parallel observations of the 2001 Harriman Retraced participants, in particular focussing on the cruise industry of which we are a part, and where an increase in scale and volume is not necessarily a positive thing for host communities, cultures, or the environment.

However, I also wanted to introduce the power of market preference shifts in tourism, as well as associated paradoxes -- where people are more interested in activity experiences rather than mere sightseeing, where wildlife viewing and soft adventure have increased, as well as more hard core adventure and wilderness appreciation. The paradoxes include the fact these increased volume and interest shifts have resulted in a greater radius of environmental impact, as both Alaskans and visitors want to "get away from it all." In part, too, motorization has contributed to the ability to get "further away" more easily and quickly, as well as contributing to new activities which have their own impact (heliskiing, flightseeing, snowmobiling, and so on).

Other elements which I wanted to introduce were the importance of environmental services. Not only does it act as a free good (supplying diverse viewscapes and settings necessary for a range of activities), but it also functions as a free "sink" -- where it is used to dispose of our refuse and sewage. Thus, for example, I hoped a discussion of using the ocean as a free dumping ground for cruiseboat garbage, sewage and other wastes, would give a sense of personal challenge to those on the voyage of discovery, using a small cruise ship. Indeed, it was timely that on July 1st, the State of Alaska took the leadership step of passing legislation which exceeded federal law in stringency, regarding cruise ship dumping. It was also particularly relevant to discuss the fact that in 2000, cruise ships cooperated in voluntary sampling of their effluent, and that 79 of the 80 ships sampled violated laws for fecal coliform or suspended solid levels by up to 50,000 times federal standards. However, the one ship which passed, was that used for the Harriman Retraced Expedition &endash; the Clipper Odyssey!

Above all, I wanted to stimulate this diverse group to see the challenges and complexities of the tourism industry, to enthuse them with the importance of addressing tourism management in an environmentally and culturally sensitive way, and to demonstrate that there are tools in managers' toolbags which can address the challenges, if we take an integrated approach rather than a single perspective to what tourism entails.

After the lecture, it was interesting to note the reactions of fellow voyagers. One individual proved to be an exception, by essentially contesting many perspectives, and particularly assuming that by advocating good tourism management the implication was that government controls would increase, whereas he advocated a free market approach to most things. This resulted in a lively discussion about the fact that that management could incorporate; voluntary or cooperative initiatives with tourism operators; or education/interpretation; or incentives; as well as the conventional "command and control" approach often used by resource managers. However, at least half the passengers approached me within the next 24 - 36 hours to indicate that they had been surprised by the huge range of elements involved in tourism, that the breadth and depth of potential impact is so large, that they found the discussion topic "much more interesting than they had expected", and that they had widened their understanding of the fact that there is not a "typical tourist", nor even a "them and us", but rather a spectrum of needs and desires. One person even indicated that they had been taking relevant notes to send to a relative who is a planner in Salt Lake City (hosting the upcoming winter Olympics).

The indications so far are that the lecture provided a helpful background and context for the multitude of forms of tourism in Alaska. However, I feel it is the subsequent discussions and continued wrestling with challenges and solutions, where the real personal learning is taking place. This is particularly the case when discussions incorporate our experiences in the range of stopping places along the Expedition route. I hope that this group discussion, personal learning, and revelation will both disturb and excite participants, and that they will take at least of some of the lessons and values of Alaska away with them.


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For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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