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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cruise Ship Tax

Air Date: Week of

More cruise ships than ever are docking in Juneau, Alaska. They're starting to wear out their welcome. And they’re taking a toll on the environment as well. On October 5, Juneau citizens will vote on an initiative to charge a five dollar fee for each cruise passenger that enters their port. As Svend Holst, a reporter for Juneau's daily newspaper, the Empire, tells host Steve Curwood, the initiative is likely to pass.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Bells, traffic, voices)

CURWOOD: Alaska is no longer a remote, untouched land. These days parts of the state are turning into tourist playgrounds, thanks to cruise ships.

(footsteps coming down gangway)

CURWOOD: More ships than ever cruised Alaskan waters this summer. And the ships are bigger and ritzier than ever. But no matter how much their decks may sparkle, some ships can have a dirty side. Last year the Holland American cruise line was caught illegally dumping oily bilge water along Alaska's southeast coast. And this summer, the Royal Caribbean Line paid an $18 million fine after pleading guilty to dumping pollutants and falsifying records to cover it up. Last month the president of Royal Caribbean toured Alaskan towns and offered this mea culpa.

PRESIDENT: Those acts were inexcusable, and they should never have happened, and we accept full responsibility. And I'd also like to extend to everybody in this room my sincere apologies on behalf of all the employees that work at Royal Caribbean International and myself, for those incidents.

CURWOOD: The apology appears to have rung hollow in Alaskan cities like Juneau. On October 5, citizens there will vote on whether to charge a $5 head tax for every cruise ship passenger that steps foot in the town. Svend Holst has been covering the story for Juneau's daily paper, The Empire. He says that Juneau has seen a boom in tourism with more and more ships arriving every year.

HOLST: There are about 565 visits a year, bringing in close to 600,000 tourists.

CURWOOD: Six hundred thousand tourists.

HOLST: In a town of 30,000. So a little town becomes a big town within a few hours. They can hop on a bus and go see a glacier, hop on a boat and go catch a salmon, hop on a helicopter and (laughs) see a glacier up close. There have been a lot of little things to annoy people about tourism, and when Royal Caribbean admitted to felony pollution, to dumping chemicals into our channel, people had something to hang their frustrations on.

CURWOOD: Is this why Juneau is proposing a head tax on cruise passengers?

HOLST: A head tax of $7 was put in front of the voters back in '96. It failed 54 percent no, 45 percent yes. So this issue was around long before Royal Caribbean.

CURWOOD: Do you think it is more likely it'll pass this time?

HOLST: I think it's pretty much guaranteed that it will. When this news of Royal Caribbean's plea came out, the person who was campaigning for the head tax said, well we don't have to campaign any more, this is a done deal.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering what folks there consider to be the most important environmental impacts of all these cruise ships coming. Is there air pollution, and of course is there water pollution beyond this illegal dumping?

HOLST: I think the biggest pollution impact that more people in Juneau feel and are responding to is noise. How many helicopters do you have to hear? There are some issues with air, the cruise ships when they keep their generators going while they're on port, on some days there will be a little level of smog going right through downtown. And that certainly has irritated quite a few people, and there isn't a lot of controls on it. Nobody's up there testing it. And for example, the water pollution, nobody tests it. So that's -- it's hard to tell.

CURWOOD: So if Juneau does impose a head tax of $5 a passenger, you had about 600,000 passengers, a simple math says that's $3 million a year for Juneau. Would that tax be used to directly offset the environmental impact of the tourist industry?

HOLST: As I understand it, the wording of the initiative, it would go directly to the city's general fund, where it would be available to be spent on anything.

CURWOOD: When these tourists get off the cruise ship, they bring money in their pockets into Juneau. Isn't this a bit like putting the goose that lays a golden egg in a pot?

HOLST: Well, yes and no. They do leave money here, but they've also left -- well, some of that egg has gone bad.

CURWOOD: Svend Holst is a reporter for the Juneau Empire. Thanks for joining us.

HOLST: Oh, pleasure.



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