Alaska Voters To Weigh Cruise Fee

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BY AMY MARTINEZ
aemartinez@MiamiHerald.com

For years, Alaska has been one of the most profitable destinations for cruise ship operators. But now, some in Alaska are asking: Is cruising profitable for the state?

Today, Alaskan voters will consider a ballot measure that would impose a $50 fee for every cruise ship passenger who visits the state.

Supporters, who collected more than 23,000 signatures to put the measure on the ballot, say the fee would raise about $50 million a year for maintaining Alaska’s waterfront.

Opponents say it would discourage people from cruising to Alaska and eventually hurt the state’s economy.

About 900,000 people cruised to Alaska last year, up from about 600,000 in 2001, according to the NorthWest CruiseShip Association.

”Cruise lines are a huge benefit to the state,” said Chris Anderson, managing partner of two Anchorage restaurants who is involved with Alaskans for Protecting Our Economy, a group formed to oppose the ballot measure.

Gershon Cohen, an environmental consultant in Haines, Alaska, who worked to get the measure on today’s ballot, said he wants cruise lines to pay their fair share. Although the cruise lines bring thousands of tourists each year to Alaska, he said, they steer them to local businesses they own, including restaurants, stores and hotels.

”The money may be spent in Alaska, but it then leaves Alaska,” he said.

Besides imposing a $50 fee, the ballot measure would put an independent pollution monitor on ships and levy a 33 percent tax on the money ships make from gambling while in Alaska.

Alaskans for Protecting Our Economy registered with the state in March, and by June the Anchorage nonprofit received about $1 million from the Vancouver-based NorthWest CruiseShip Association, made up of nine operators including Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian.

That money has been spent on an aggressive advertising campaign that includes glossy pamphlets sent to Alaskans’ homes, said Cohen, who depicts the matchup as a classic ”David and Goliath.” His group, Responsible Cruising in Alaska, has spent about $7,600.

Anderson warned that the ballot measure could cause cruise lines to redeploy their ships outside of Alaska. But Cohen said cruise lines aren’t likely to leave.

”Where are they going to go? New Jersey? Baltimore? I don’t think so,” Cohen said. “There’s a reason that people come here, and it’s because Alaska is just a phenomenally beautiful, pristine place. The cruise lines are making a fortune here.”

Cruise lines generally charge at least $1,000 for tickets on a week-long Alaskan cruise. A similar Caribbean cruise starts as low as $500.

Stewart Chiron, president of the Miami-based website Cruiseguy.com, said cruisers already are paying more than $200 in fees tacked onto ticket prices, and an additional $50 “appears almost like a shakedown.”

Analysts who follow the cruise lines say the proposed $50 fee comes at a bad time for many vacationers. Robert Simonson, of William Blair & Co. in Chicago, said vacationers already are curtailing their spending plans amid rising gas prices and a slowdown in house price appreciation. Those concerns are believed to be behind a weakening in the Caribbean cruise market.

”You don’t want to add on anything to the cost of a ticket when demand is softening,” Simonson said. “It just exacerbates the negative pressure.”

Robin Farley, an analyst at UBS in New York, said the ballot measure would cost Miami-based Carnival Corp. about $75 million next year. She put the cost to Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises at about $21 million.