In Alaska, a Fight Brews over Cruise Tax

Cruise ships bring about 1 million tourists to sightsee and shop in Alaska each year. Now Alaskans will vote on a ballot initiative that would impose a $50 cruise ship passenger tax. Supporters say it would force the big ships to play fair and pay their share. Opponents say it would scare away tourists, hurt Alaska businesses and cost jobs. From Coast Alaska Public Radio in Juneau, Ed Schoenfeld reports.

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About a million people take cruise ships each year to southeast Alaska, the part of the state known as the panhandle. It's a winding route up the rugged coast to view snow-topped mountains, boulder-strewn glaciers, and wildlife from whales to eagles to bears.

Tomorrow, Alaskans will decide whether these big ships will face increased taxes and regulations.

Ed Schoenfeld of Coast Alaska Public Radio sent this report from Juneau.

(Soundbite of conversation)

Unidentified Woman #1: Anyone for Tour A-1? Glacier Hatchery Tour.

ED SCHOENFELD reporting:

Tour representatives stand at the dock, herding passengers off the cruise ship Sapphire Princess toward a line of waiting buses.

The tourists are carrying cameras for the scenery and umbrellas for the weather they'll find on whale-watching trips, at salmon bakes, and during helicopter flights to nearby glaciers.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

SCHOENFELD: Two thousand or more people are coming off the ship the length of three football fields and 18 decks high.

Unidentified Man: A-2?

Unidentified Woman #1: A-2, yeah, your meet-time is at 8:50. This is the girl who'll be filming, and I'll let you know as soon as you're ready.

Unidentified Woman #2: Okay.

Unidentified Man: Oh, thank you.

SCHOENFELD: The Sapphire Princess and other cruise ships bring up to 15,000 tourists a day into this 30,000-person town and others like it along southeast Alaska's coast. And for years, some locals and government officials have been trying to get more money out of the industry.

The latest effort is a multi-pronged initiative put on the ballot by a citizen's petition drive. Chip Toma, one of the measure's supporters, says it's about time.

Mr. CHIP TOMA (Cruise Tax Supporter): Every industry should be regulated to some degree. And this industry right now is regulated almost not at all.

SCHOENFELD: The ballot measure would strengthen existing environmental regulations, as well as impose new ones. But the main issue is a $50 fee charged to each passenger. Some of the money would pay for environmental engineers called ocean rangers who would ride the ships and check for pollution.

But most of the expected $50 million a year would be split between port cities, other communities affected by tourism, and state government. The industry, by and large, opposes the measure.

Mr. BOB WYSOCKI (CEO, Alaskan Corporation): We think that this is an all-out attack on the economy itself and a devastating impact could come from this thing passing.

SCHOENFELD: That's Bob Wysocki, CEO of an Alaska native corporation that owns several shore businesses including a renovated salmon cannery. He says his company and others like it will lose money if the measure passes.

Mr. WYSOCKI: We really think that if people do their homework and understand all of the elements to this and the impact of this industry on the state that folks would shy away from an initiative like this.

SCHOENFELD: To make their point, cruise companies headquartered outside the state have funded a $2 million campaign to defeat the measure. They're predicting a drop in tourism if the $50 fee passes.

But ballot measure supporters have raised and spent relatively little. They say they're counting on Alaskans' gut reactions against big outside corporations as well as environmental concerns to pass the initiative.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah, if you want to find another (unintelligible) check in at three.

SCHOENFELD: Back at the waterfront, cruise ship passengers are exploring Juneau's souvenir shops, jewelry stores, and art galleries.

Carol and Ted Schaumberg(ph) of Wayzata, Minnesota say the passenger fee wouldn't make a difference.

Ms. CAROL SCHAUMBERG (Cruise Ship Passenger): For us, we're looking at it as a once-in-a-lifetime trip. We're traveling with both sets of grandparents. So the $50 would be pretty minimal for what we've already paid.

Mr. TED SCHAUMBERG (Cruise Ship Passenger): It wouldn't keep us from coming.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAUMBERG: You know, we spent a few thousand dollars on the trip. Fifty dollars isn't going to stop anything.

SCHOENFELD: Beyond the fee charged to passengers, the measure would go directly after cruise ship earnings. It would reinstate an industry income tax removed by Alaska's legislature eight years ago. And it would take a third of the profits from gambling, including on-board casinos. Both measures could cost the industry millions.

For NPR News, I'm Ed Schoenfeld in Juneau.

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