Responsible tourism in Alaska

With new ships that can carry more than 8,000 passengers and crew, these floating cities pollute the air we breathe and the water we use and enjoy
– Friends of the Earth
Cruise ship passengers comprise the majority of tourists in Alaska. And those ships just keep growing, with the latest cruiser bruiser in Alaska boasting over 4,000 passengers. Juneau, the busiest cruise ship port, built two additional berths in 2017. At Responsible Travel, we like to think small when it comes to cruising, although there is no doubt that seeing Alaska from the water is one of the most splendid ways to do so. The other responsible way to enjoy Alaska is to engage with the local communities, support their economies and learn about their culture and traditions. This is as far from worshipping the King Cunards of the world as you could imagine.

Wildlife & environment

Until recently, the only way to assess the environmental damage caused by giant cruise liners was what we saw in their wake. In many cases, it wasn’t a pretty sight. However, thanks to the work of Friends of the Earth (FOE), which carried out detailed research in 2014, we now have more specific details regarding the footprint of giant cruise ships. Policing cruise ships and the impacts they have is tricky, as many are owned by international conglomerates so penalising them is a complex process. Of course, the best penalisers are the customers who have the greatest power of all: simply boycotting the baddies and refusing to support those who aren’t transparent about their environmental policies, or indeed their employment ones. Many of these are also dubious. Read more about FOE’s research here, and about our stance on irresponsible cruising.

Why small cruise ships in Alaska are different

Our responsible, small cruise ships are not, for the most part, tiny vessels but expedition boats that have been designed to cope with Alaskan conditions. They are not, however, the behemoths that sleep thousands of people. We let nature be the ruler of the waves on these trips, and our expedition boats sleep between 70-100 guests. Less common but more popular on specific wildlife watching trips is a specially built boat, based on the Alaskan fishing boat hull design and only sleeping 10 passengers. Of course, it is still equipped with all the safety and navigation equipment needed to sail through these remote waters.
Responsible cruising companies that take you into Alaskan waters are members of the 'Passenger Vessel Association Green WATERS Program', or PVA. You will find eco friendly cleaning products on board, a stringent waste management system, no plastic water bottles, and a strict Leave No Trace policy for any shore excursions.
Responsible food sourcing is vital in this part of the world – as well as being delicious, with Alaskan seafood, for example, being some of the finest in the world. There is an impressive chefs’ organisation known as ‘Chefs Collaborative’ which is all about local sourcing and high quality seasonal food. This includes locally harvested crab, halibut, shrimp and wild Alaskan salmon, washed down with Alaskan craft beers.
What you can do:
As well as opting for a small ship cruise, which adheres to responsible tourism policies and practices, do remember that all passengers have their own role to play. Use environmentally friendly toiletries when out at sea and leave nothing on the beaches or forests where you disembark. According to the Marine Conservation Society, there are nearly 2,500 items of rubbish for every kilometre of beach, and so this is a good time to really think about your use of plastics and what goes into the marine environment. Not just at sea, but in everyday life. Cut out what you can, from food packaging to straws, cotton buds to plastic bottles, and make a Plastic Pledge at Greenpeace. Supporting Friends of the Earth is also a good way to go. Donations help them fight the baddies.

people & culture

Come share our land, our birthright and our dream— see you in southeast Alaska.
– Tlingit community run small ship cruise
John Muir, the great Scottish-American naturalist who is nicknamed ‘Father of National Parks’, travelled to Alaska and the islands of the Alexander Archipelago in the early 20th century. He was guided throughout by the Tlingit, the indigenous people of southeast Alaska. Today, on a responsible tourism small ship cruise, you can do the same. On certain trips into Glacier Bay National Park, you can travel on board a community owned vessel, the community being three generations of members of the Kaagwaantaan Clans, one of the clans of the Tlingit.
The Alexander Archipelago and Glacier Bay National Park are the ancestral lands of these people, whose name translates rather beautifully as People of the Tides. Never miss a chance to learn about the Tlingit history here, with responsible cruise companies working with Tlingit community members who share their stories through onboard lectures, or lead hiking trips into the landscapes where they don’t need a map. Don’t miss the Kik-setti Totem Park in Wrangell; the totem poles and storytelling sessions really are something else.
There are certain aspects of the traditional culture that some travelers may not condone, however, such as seal hunting or whaling, both of which still happen and are considered an important part of their subsistence hunting heritage. Hunting is strictly regulated in terms of numbers, the hunting season and who is allowed to hunt. Traditionally, in some locations such as around Yakutat north of Glacier Bay, whole clans would decamp to a glacier for a month in order to undertake an intensive period of seal hunting together.
What you can do:
As well as reading Travels in Alaska or Letters from Alaska by John Muir, do read up on the Tlingit people of Alaska before you go. Your small cruise operator may also suggest local conservation or community charities that would welcome donations, so always ask about these. Another great source of information is at the heart of the community itself: The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (Tlingit & Haida).

Responsible tourism tips

Do not feed or touch the wildlife. And when taking photos of animals, never use flash photography. If you are whale watching, responsible tour operators will know the good player guidelines inside out. For example, your skipper should always approach whales slowly and from the side, never from the front or rear, and they should never cross the path of a whale. Boats should never crowd around whales, corralling them in, nor should they speed up and overtake them. It’s all about just watching whales in their terrain, doing what whales do, with as little interference from us humans as possible. Read more in our Whale watching travel guide.
Don’t eat whale meat. The hunting of whales for meat is still legal in Alaska, carried out by nine indigenous Alaskan communities, in keeping with cultural traditions. It is a complex subject and we appreciate the importance of maintaining these traditions and knowledge. However, as visitors, it is better to go whale watching rather than to create an artificial, tourist-focused market for whale meat. When out on the hiking trails, please don’t pick wildflowers or damage moss or lichen. And don’t light fires. Alaska has a serious history of destructive wildfires, many caused by lightning but the majority by humans. Tongass National Forest is a giant, but it is terrifying how quickly 69,000km2 can go up in smoke.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Elaine] [Cruise ship pollution: Don Mingo] [Wildlife & environment : Advent ] [Tlingit culture : Roy Luck ] [Whale meat: Jewel Lake-Parish]
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