Cruise Ships and Tourism - the Unconsidered Industry

I recently read an article here about bright prospects for a growing cruise ship industry in Southeast Alaska, including the arrival for the first time of Disney cruise ships in the region. Today was my first day of work, back at the same bookstore where I worked for most of last summer, and there was also a Disney cruise ship in town, along with three others, including - I believe - at least one Celebrity and a Holland America.

Living in Ketchikan, everyone knows about cruise ships. You recognize the designs, the cruise lines, even specific ships. In fact, when I was walking toward home from my store this afternoon, I saw a ship from afar and was shocked that the coloring did not look like any line I'd seen before. Getting closer and thinking logically, of course, I saw that it was the Disney ship, but all the same, it's a sign of how much these moving giants can get buried in a person's mind when they spend all summer sitting in front of the city center, dwarfing anything nearby.

[I love this photo, which I found here, basically giving a view of all of Ketchikan (with Downtown furthest away) and including the airport (across Tongass Narrows on Gravina Island) as well as two cruise ships, obviously much larger than any building in the city.]

Cruise ships going to Alaska typically start their voyages in Seattle or Vancouver, (the biggest cities of the Pacific Northwest), passing through Ketchikan as their first stop going north, arriving in the morning or afternoon and then staying for a number of hours. They then usually move on to some combination of Sitka, Juneau, Skagway or even Anchorage, with other sights along the ride and smaller ports possible as well. (Of course, people also go the other way, arriving in Ketchikan as the penultimate port.) Glaciers seem to be very common objectives of the cruise itineraries, with the ships going out of their way along Tracy Arm near Juneau to see the Sawyer Glacier, going to Glacier Bay, or stopping by the Hubbard Glacier near Yakutat when going from Juneau to Southcentral Alaska. I personally find glaciers extremely boring to see, and only interesting in the abstract when thinking about the carved landmasses they left behind. Still, I'm sure the main attraction for most people coming to Alaska is its natural wonder, in some way or another. If my mind is dulled to realizing this, it's probably because I've been here so long.

Despite this likely emphasis on the natural, I still have problems with how the human aspects of Alaska are portrayed to visitors - especially in Ketchikan. Today I took a few little walks, and the state of commercial affairs near the docks downtown is the same as ever - blocks filled with jewelry stores, curio shops, and all manner of tacky goods little related to genuine Alaska products. There are many good things to be found too, the books in my store among them, but in the end I feel like Ketchikan makes a horrible impression on many people, even though it may bring in a great deal of money from compulsive shoppers. Just today I heard tourists ridiculing the sign for "Caribbean gems" - and honestly, who could blame them? What interests me most about Ketchikan is what lies beyond Downtown, but most tourists never have time to leave it, and may not even go more than a few blocks from their ships, as one man I talked to today insisted he could not do, even though he looked perfectly capable.

Another thing that bothers me, being a history-oriented thinker, are the common historical narratives proffered to visitors here. It seems most every tour talks about Dolly's House, a supposedly famous brothel, but regardless of the number of men who went there during the decades it functioned, I doubt it would attract so much attention were it not a functioning money-making museum today. The picture I see being given out commercially is a Ketchikan past of old-time saloons, fishermen and prostitutes, which somehow translates into a Ketchikan today of shops, fishermen and merchants (just about the same, actually). The Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian peoples are left out entirely of these historical visions, but this isn't to say that tourists don't learn about Native Alaskans: Rather, Native culture is simply treated as some timeless constant outside the context of history - an all too common perception of indigenous peoples around the world, but an extremely wrong one nonetheless.

These are just observations and notions of mine, unsupported by serious analysis, but I think they at least show one important point: Tourism's effects on a community are too often unconsidered. The attitude of many in Ketchikan is that the cruise ship industry is a nearly unmitigated boon; I think that visitors are great too, and I very much appreciate the economic vitality stemming from the ships that carries my hometown through each passing year. Nevertheless, it almost seems as if there's been a total surrender to the demands and influences of the cruise lines, leaving out contemplation of what that path will bring. I intensely dislike the idea of Ketchikan evolving into little more than a destination, repopulated each summer to provide for its visitors, something of a Las Vegas for those wanting to kayak. Cities are always built on economic bases, and Ketchikan has always been tied to certain industries, from salmon canning to pulp making. I believe, however, that those who care about the town should carefully consider what consequences the cruise ships bring, and ideas on how to re-diversify our little economy would be quite welcome indeed.

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