Thursday, April 9, 2009

What's Wrong with Alaska's Thinking

Earlier this week, the Anchorage Daily News published an editorial that, while it's a valid opinion, it also shows the wrong thinking in Alaska that's threatening to destroy their entire tourism industry as they now know it.

The situation the opinion piece addresses is the legislature trying to set the standards for cruise ships' waste water emissions. More strict standards were mandated in the 2006 citizens' initiative (which also added the infamous $50 tax among numerous other taxes and fees), but like everything else in the measure, it was left to the legislature to actually write the law (including the exact specifications) and implement it. According to the cruise lines, equipment with the technology to meet the standards that the state wants to set isn't even on the market yet, and once it is, it will take a couple of years to obtain it and get it installed.

The cruise lines have been working with the legislature to reach some sort of compromise and set some standards under which they can continue to operate. The mechanism the legislature seems to be now leaning toward is creating a panel which would study the ability of the cruise lines to meet the standards and the economic feasibility of it and have the panel report back in 2012 and 2014. Those dates seem to be in line with when the industry says the equipment will come onto the market and when they can get it installed.

The newspaper seems to be assuming that referring the issue to the panel for further study equates to the death of the idea. In the opinion piece, they say they want absolute deadlines set for those dates.

We see this as an example of the mindset in Alaska which could in the end destroy one of the state's most profitable sources of income and employment.

The major assumption this thinking has is that the state holds all the cards and the cruise industry will ultimately accept whatever conditions are placed upon their operation there. It is true that the state can dictate the conditions for cruise lines to operate there, but the fallacious part of the assumption is that the cruise industry will do whatever they need to do to continue to operate cruises to Alaska. If the state sets standards unreasonably high that it will be impossible or very difficult for the cruise industry to meet, they are a very mobile industry which can disappear almost overnight if necessary.

The thinking in Alaska that the ADN represents, forgets that cruise lines exist only to make money for their investors, and times have changed both in the cruise industry and in Alaska. Pricing for cruises is currently down, and the state has already added tremendously to the cost side of the equation in the Alaska market. As a result, there are now other markets where it's more profitable to operate cruises than in Alaska, and there are more opening all the time.

Yes, the cruise lines have assets on land in Alaska that they don't have elsewhere, but the cruise lines are demonstrating their willingness to walk away from those. Next year they are intentionally planning to operate them below capacity as they shrink the supply of cruise berths in the market in an effort to increase pricing. It's much easier today to envision the cruise industry leaving Alaska than it has ever been in the past.

The other part of the mindset that's wrong in Alaska is to not consider a certain degree of pollution by the cruise industry acceptable. It's great to aspire to zero pollution, but in reality Alaskans are already compromising those ideals for themselves. Alaskans are driving cars that are polluting the air, and their cities are putting waste into the water that are nowhere close to the standards they want to require of cruise ships because they know it's economically unfeasible to suddenly require their cars and cities to meet the same air and water standards.

With that in mind, they need to start thinking about there being some middle ground between the ideal they want and what's realistic for the cruise industry to meet at a cost they can afford and that the consumer will be willing to pay to come to Alaska. If Alaskans adhere to the ideal, instead of reality, that's OK, but they must also recognize that it seems they will also be facing a future without a cruise industry - and the economic benefits and jobs it brings to their state.

You can read the Anchorage Daily News editorial on the ADN site, but you will have to scroll down after you click on the link.

This article originally appeared in the April 9, 2009, edition of Cruise News Daily.