By Suzan Thompson
July 29, 2005
Regarding the upcoming bond election to extend the cruise ship docks, it seems to me that the city administration and the Visitors' Bureau may be misjudging what it takes to sell this idea to the public. The focus seems to be on making people aware that their property taxes will not go up if they cast a "Yes" vote. I think most people are well aware of this already. If the proposal is rejected, it probably won't be because people are confused about the effect it will have on their taxes. It will more likely be because those residents who are already deliberately avoiding the downtown core five months of the year (and thus denying themselves access to the services and benefits located there) are fearful that if these docks are built, they will have to start avoiding New Town and the West End as well, leaving them all huddled like refugees somewhere around Wolf Point.
Before somebody starts frothing at the mouth and writes in to tell me that if I don't like tourists I can move elsewhere, let me say that I make my living from the tourist industry. I was born here, and I worked my way through high school and paid my way through college with dollars earned in the visitor industry. I am not anti-cruise line, nor am I opposed to having a thriving visitor industry in Ketchikan. But a recent visit from family who live in the Lower 48 made it necessary for me on a couple of occasions to join the throngs of tourists downtown, and it opened my eyes to what those people are put through when they disembark from cruise ships and are funneled onto our streets. It was crowded, noisy, dirty, and tense. People were stepping into the street between parked cars in an effort to dodge past each other all the way from the tunnel to Salmon Landing. Elderly folks with walkers, visitors in wheelchairs, and children, who must try to maneuver with their faces and upper bodies at a lower elevation than the mainstream, were being whacked with bags, purses, and backpacks. Trying to navigate through the crowds in the larger downtown stores was a miserable experience for customers and employees alike. Several times along the lower end of the Front Street dock we were accosted by businesspeople who left their shops to come out to the sidewalk and offer us incentives to come inside. Do we really need another three or four blocks of this? And consider this: on Thursdays, when there can be as many as 10,000 visitors and almost 5,000 crew in town, if only one-fifth of those people have to use a bathroom during their visit, where do almost 3,000 people go to relieve themselves? Security measures make returning to the ships too onerous and time-consuming and there are not enough public restrooms downtown. Nobody wants to see a line of Port-a-Potties along Tongass Avenue, but Ketchikan, which seems to be desperate for more visitors, has done a poor job providing access to this basic necessity.
Extending the docks will take some pressure off the downtown, that's certain. But the present practice of having the ships hot-berth or anchor out in the channel at least partially reduces the sheer number of human bodies packed in here at one time. If more ships are able to berth here all at once, that advantage is gone. More visitors will be trying to safely negotiate the narrow New Town sidewalks. Traffic will be even more congested as drivers slow for pedestrians, the horse trolleys, and ever more of the diesel-belching buses along the one portion of Tongass Avenue which is now about the only area close to downtown where a driver can be reasonably sure that he or she won't be impeded by such traffic.
Finally, it seems to me that the cruise lines have been subtly warning us in recent months to be prepared for a future economic downturn regardless of whether or not we build more dock space, because passengers are telling the cruise lines what it is they want to see in Alaska, and the cruise lines are listening. They have to listen; their financial success depends on it. And what passengers are increasingly saying is that they are disappointed with the fact that all the ports in Southeastern Alaska look so much alike. We hear this multiple times a day in the business where I work. Southbound passengers say they could hardly tell Ketchikan from Juneau from Skagway because the waterfronts are all lined with the same kinds of Caribbean-based businesses. Northbound passengers who have cruised in the Caribbean say they are surprised that, from the decks of their ship, the waterfront in their first Alaskan port of call looks so much like what they've already experienced elsewhere!
Passengers frequently tell me that they like Ketchikan, but that they expected a more Alaskan experience, and want to see towns that haven't been so thoroughly commercialized. Hence, I believe, the industry's moves into areas near Hoonah and Metlakatla. Tellingly, the passengers who've booked cruises on the smaller ships seem the most satisfied with their experience. Dozens of people have asked me about traveling on the state ferry system. If these people do return to Alaska, they may be coming on a different type of ship.
It seems to me that residents of Ketchikan would be well-advised to find a way to take advantage of our maritime location, our spectacular scenery, our historic buildings, and the lure of Alaska to improve our port infrastructure in a way that reduces our dependence on the cruise ships, but which also creates opportunities for tourism and for the economic benefits that other maritime traffic will bring. Since I am a borough resident I won't be able to vote in this election, and there may be people out there right now breathing a big sigh of relief that this is so. But as a citizen of Ketchikan I am as much impacted by the results as are city residents, and I'm pretty sure that, as financially dependent as I am on tourism, if I could vote I'd have a tough time voting "Yes" on this one.
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