Back in August, Alaskans went to the polls and voted for Ballot Measure 2, a package of new regulations that address cruise line operations and environmental standards, all paid for with a new $50 per-passenger head tax. After vigorously fighting the measure, cruise lines have recently begun to switch tack, touting their community commitment and environmental stewardship. Call it an "Ich bin ein Alaskan" initiative, designed to score points with Alaskans while adding green cachet to soothe passengers' karma while they're coughing up that extra $50.
As background, the head tax applies to cruise ships carrying more than 250 passengers, with monies raised deposited in the state fund and divvied up between port towns and areas where ships sail but do not berth, such as Prince William Sound and portions of the Inside Passage. Out of the $50, $46 will be used to maintain port infrastructure and emergency services used by cruise passengers, while $4 will cover the cost of a new monitoring program in which a state-employed, Coast Guard-licensed marine engineer will sail on each ship to observe health, safety, and wastewater treatment and discharge operations -- the latter covered in additional measures designed to protect state waters and the local fishing industry, including a requirement that cruise ship operators obtain a new type of permit before discharging sewage, graywater and other wastewater it in state waters.
The PR ball got rolling in January, when Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess, Regent Seven Seas and Royal Caribbean got together to form the Alaska Cruise Association, an industry group that will work toward improving the relationship between the cruise lines and the Alaskan public. The group is headed by John Binkley, a former state senator, gubernatorial candidate and chairman of the Alaska Railroad Corporation board. He's currently planning a series of outreach activities to begin a dialogue between the industry and community groups.
Princess Cruises (tel. 800/PRINCESS; www.princess.com) has recruited longtime Alaska tourism executive Bruce Bustamante to serve in the newly created position of vice president of community and public affairs. He'll be a key member of the Alaska Cruise Association -- reflecting Princess's long history as one of the state's leading cruise lines -- and will liaise between Princess and elected leaders and local agencies and coordinate the line's charitable efforts in the state.
Royal Caribbean (tel. 800/327-6700; www.royalcaribbean.com), meanwhile, is touting the "Green Star" award bestowed on Royal Celebrity Tours (the land-tour arm of Royal Caribbean and Celebrity's Alaska operations) by Green Star, an Anchorage-based nonprofit that promotes pollution prevention in the workplace.
"Royal Celebrity Tours deeply values the environment and we are committed to protecting and preserving natural resources," said Royal Celebrity Tours President Craig Milan. "We sought out Green Star as a way to engage our Alaska employees in a concerted effort to make small changes that would result in a big win for the environment."
To achieve Green Star Award status, Royal Celebrity was required to meet a series of pre-determined "Green Star Standards" that include outreach and education; efforts to purchase recyclable, recycled-content, and energy-efficient products; waste prevention; paper-, energy- and water-use reduction; and a comprehensive recycling program. Royal Celebrity reportedly placed particular emphasis on reducing the amount of time its motor-coaches' engines idle, a move that reduces the amount of emissions released into the atmosphere and to cuts fuel usage.
All these efforts are designed to woo indignant Alaskans over to the cruise lines' side, but what about indignant passengers miffed at that extra $50 per head they'll be paying? The cruise lines aren't offering any rebates, but they have come up with some interesting shore excursions to play into the desire for up-close Alaska experiences.
In Ketchikan, several cruise lines are offering a four-hour private skiff tour, in which well-heeled guests can get personal with Alaska aboard a private 20-foot, open-air skiff. With an expert local guide to lead the way, you can personalize your itinerary as you like -- fishing for salmon or halibut, watching for wildlife, hiking the rainforest, or setting out pots to catch Dungeness crab, when cooking it up at a campsite. Though the cover price on this tour is $799, that's per skiff, not per person, and each skiff accommodates five passengers.
For more fish tales, you can also opt for Ketchikan's four-hour Bering Sea Crab Fisherman's Tour, in which guests sail on the same vessel seen on the Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch program. Real fishermen share their stories of fishing the frigid but fish-rich Bering Sea, pulling up live specimens that are either placed in a tank for observation or released back into the sea. This tour is priced at $205 per person.
A third Ketchikan tour, the four-hour Anan Creek Bear Watch, takes passenger by float plane to one of Alaska's finest bear-watching sites, where you can watch from an observation platform as bear fish for salmon in the rich stream. It's priced at $575 per person.
In Juneau, trips to Mendenhall Glacier remain a big draw, with many travelers citing their desire to see Alaska's glaciers while they're still there as being a prime reason for traveling to the state. In recent years, global warming has begun to have a noticeable effect. All over the state -- and in other northern lands like Greenland and the Canadian Arctic -- temperatures have risen three to five times more than the global average, causing glaciers, sea ice, and permafrost to melt. Mendenhall Glacier, for instance, lost 656 feet of its ice in 2004 and another 269 feet in 2005, and scientists project that it will recede away from Mendenhall Lake in little more than ten years, retreating farther and farther into the mountains.
The best way to see the glacier is by helicopter tour. After transferring to the airport by bus, guests board helicopters for a flight that follows the flowing ice of the Mendenhall high into the mountains. While glaciers are impressive enough from the water, it takes a flight up along their length to really drive home how completely stupendous they really are, stretching away as far as the eye can see. It's literally like getting a glimpse back into the ice age. After about 20 minutes of flight-seeing, your helicopter will touch down on the glacial ice, where (outfitted in special boots provided by the helicopter company) you'll have a chance to walk around on the surface. Regular tours are priced from $265 to $399. More expensive options add in additional activities, such as the Glacier Dog-Sled Expedition that combines a flight over the Juneau Icefield with a landing on either the Norris or the Mendenhall glacier, where you'll board dog sleds with an Iditarod veteran ($499). The Extended Helicopter Glacier Trek ($499) involves a flight onto the Juneau Icefield followed by four hours of hiking and climbing in rugged terrain, descending ice walls and exploring glacial pools and ice caves along the way.
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