Responsible tourism in Alaska

Alaska is mind-bendingly huge, so it’s no real surprise that its responsible tourism issues are vast, too. There are two major branches to its economy: oil and tourism. And both can be (and have been) hugely damaging when not managed correctly. Because while the Alaskan wilderness might be synonymous with tough-it-out adventuring, it’s one of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet.

People & culture in Alaska

Alaska Natives

‘Alaska Natives’ is a big generalisation for what is actually 16 percent of the Alaskan resident population. There are five major groups (Aleut, Inuit, Athabaskan, Tlingit and Haida) and a boatload of other tribal groupings (from Alutiiq to Tsimshian). Communities have lived in such isolation that they’ve developed at least 20 language groups – a challenge for those planning to learn a few words of the local lingo.

In 2018, Alaska declared a ‘language emergency’ after the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council warned that aboriginal languages could be extinct within a century. Government funds can now be funnelled towards promoting and preserving traditional tongues not traditionally written down – something of a reparation for its past hand in destroying Alaska Native culture.
A loss of language is tightly woven with a loss of culture. As elders die, so do the traditions.
Colonisation kicked off a couple of centuries’ worth of culture loss for the Alaska Natives. From the arrival of the Russian fur traders in the late 1700s, to WWII – when Aleuts were booted off their islands by Japanese troops and dumped in internment camps by US troops – they’ve had to wrestle with European and American colonists intent on eradicating their way of life. It’s rarely been a fair fight. The US government was an active participant in encouraging the ‘civilising’ of Alaska Native children by placing them in missionary schools from as early as 1819.

But there’s a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. As well as the federal funding, significantly, Mount McKinley was returned to its Athabaskan name, Denali, for the national park’s 100th anniversary. It was a form of reparation, acknowledging that Alaska’s history goes far beyond the last 300 years. It’s not a new idea, either – even park founder Charles Sheldon wanted it to be so.

The Indians who have lived for countless generations in the presence of these colossal mountains have given them names that are both euphonious and appropriate… Can it be denied that the names they gave to the most imposing features of their country should be preserved?
– Charles Sheldon, founder of Denali National Park
Although the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act resolved many land rights struggles, Alaska Natives are still in a constant tug of war for equal rights. They struggle with similar problems that Native Americans in the lower states struggle with: poverty, lack of education, high suicide rates, alcoholism and violence.

What you can do
There are things you can do to help. Visit (and spend your money) at the Alaska Native co-ops in the cities. Support and engage with Alaska Native guides. Some of our small ship cruise partners work with boat owners from the Kaagwaantaan clans in Southeast Alaska. These skippers are real fonts of knowledge regarding the environment and communities in this neck of the woods. Before you travel, also crack into the Alaska Native Knowledge Network, which covers everything from spirituality and oral storytelling to subsistence living in the 21st century.

Sustenance vs. sustainable

Whale hunting is a complex and sensitive issue, and not something to judge without reading up on the background. Over half of Alaska Natives live in rural communities. And when Alaskans say ‘rural’ they mean towns with no road access, only accessible by plane, boat, hiking or snowmobile. They rely on caribou, seal oil and whale meat almost as much as their ancestors did.

Indigenous Inupiat and Siberian Yupik communities in the northwest hunt whales in accordance with the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, which allows subsistence hunting of certain species with strict rules on quotas. Whale bones fortify houses, membrane skins drums and oil is used for lamps. It’s as sustainable as whaling can be, but often misunderstood and lumped in with the damaging whaling practices of Iceland and Japan.

Towns like Point Hope harpoon around three whales a year, sometimes under the eye of government regulators who make sure that hunting remains sustainable – as it has been for centuries. Hunters don’t use commercial whaling boats, but paddle into the half-frozen ocean in skin canoes. The meat can’t legally be sold outside Alaska Native communities, either; if you do see it for sale, don’t buy it. Alaska Natives can sell baleen handicrafts like baskets and jewellery, but if you buy a souvenir you won’t be able to take them outside the USA.

When it comes to polar bear hunting, don’t confuse Alaska with Canada. It’s the neighbouring Yukon and Northwest Territories that allow polar bear hunting – not Alaska. The USA won’t even let a hunter sneak a polar bear skin over the border.

Wildlife & environment in Alaska

Alaska’s climate crisis

Think climate refugees, and you might think of the sinking islands of the Maldives or hurricane-bashed South Carolina. But Alaska is warming twice as fast as the global average, with temperatures predicted to rise up to 7°C by 2100.
That’s bad news for the icy forces that shape Alaska. Denali National Park lost eight percent of its glacier fields between 1950 and 2010. That means that glaciers like Middle Fork Toklat have shrunk by 25 metres; yearly ice thinning has become a pattern rather than an anomaly. In northern Alaska, tourism is booming in Kaktovik because polar bears are spending more time in town than on the increasingly thin sea ice. Meanwhile, spring landslides in Denali have gone from minor occurrences to disruptive events that close the only visitor road in and out.

Rural Alaska Native communities feel climate change twice as badly as anyone else. After all, if snowmobiles are your only mode of transport, how do you travel when there’s just half a foot of snow? How do you hunt for caribou when herd movements are increasingly unpredictable? For Alaska, climate change is the crisis that keeps on giving – but Alaskans are masters at adapting.

Newtok campaigned for and received government funding to move the town to more stable ground, after shrinking permafrost led to massive erosion. And in Fairbanks, the Cold Climate Housing Research Centre designs homes with adjustable foundations for shifting conditions – research that can also be applied to hotels and guest houses living on ever-eroding ground. Road construction is changing, too, with damaged roads being rebuilt in materials designed to minimise heat radiation to the surrounding tundra.

From gold rush to oil rush

Alaska is only second to Texas in terms of oil production. The infamous 1,270km Trans-Alaska Pipeline swigs oil from Prudoe in the north to Valdez port in the south. The industry isn’t losing momentum, either – there’s something of an oil renaissance going on. The North Basin, in the far north of Alaska, is said to store around 28 million barrels of crude oil and production is due to increase by 40 percent by 2026.

Good news for the oil industry; bad news for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that lies over it. This South Carolina-sized conservation area doubles as the most important polar bear area in the USA. The effects of drilling in national parks are manifold, ranging from breaking up wildlife habitat to polluting air and water. The word ‘pipeline’ implies they’re laid underground, but in Alaska it’s a case of permanently clearing land for above-ground pipelines, spoiling the vistas that visitors come to Alaska to experience.

Opposition to drilling here is folding under Washington and the Alaska Native corporation. The Alaska Native populations are divided. The Alaska Native corporation campaigned for drilling; Gwich’in communities point out that it could disturb the caribou migration that they rely on for food and that tourists travel to see.
Alaska has already experienced a couple of worst case scenarios, most recently in 2004 when an oil tanker broke apart in the Aleutian Islands, spilling over one million litres of oil.
As a rule, Alaskans tend to be pro oil drilling. It could be something to do with the Alaska Permanent Fund that gives each permanent resident a yearly dividend calculated off oil profits. It’s a truly Alaskan conundrum – the state which is one of the worst hit by climate change is most keen to push ahead with drilling for planet-warming fossil fuels.

However, where there are remote communities there are renewable energies. Over the last decade, the thousands of people who live off the grid have been easing off the diesel generators and using wind turbines. It’s largely driven by sky-high electricity rates, which are the second highest in the US and around 50 percent higher than the national average.

Kodiak is a pioneer. The city was using more than 99 percent renewable energy in 2017, after investing in wind and water turbines. Geographically, it’s lucky to have a windy coastline and a raised alpine lake for hydropower. In Southeast Alaska, meanwhile, the Kasidaya hydroelectric project was built solely to support the rush of tourists from visiting cruise ships. These are real renewable energy success stories that serve as hopeful antidotes to the ever-growing oil industry. 

Cruise country

Cruise ships are big money for Alaska, with five percent of all cruise trips in the world chugging through the state. It broke its own passenger record in 2018, with over one million passengers rocking up – mostly piling in during the short summer season. Imagine 2,500 passengers piling out of a cruise ship into a tiny Alaskan port, and you can start to see some of the problems with cruising 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
Cruising is bright for the economy, but not for the environment. Cruise lines have successfully battled to soften the strict waste disposal laws of Alaska. There have been accidents, too – the accidental dumping of over 300,000 litres of chlorinated water into Glacier Bay, for instance. Cruise lines regularly smash through emission standards too, with barely a slap on the wrist from the government. These ships also travel through some of the most fragile landscapes in Alaska. They sail alongside threatened bowhead whales in the Bering Sea and beside endangered pods of belugas in Cook Inlet.

What you can do
It might sound all doom and gloom, but there is an answer: small ship cruises. Because while Alaska is a massive state, you don’t need a massive ship to sail around it. Fewer passengers (often between 20-100) mean you’ll see towns minus the crowds and won’t be treated like just another kayaker in the crowd.

Look out for an Alaskan-owned family business, giving work to Alaskan guides who are invested in protecting the Alaskan landscape. The Passenger Vessel Association (PVA) Green Waters Programme is a good stamp of approval, meaning the skippers, crew and passengers are expected to live up to exacting environmental standards. Read more about why we support small ship cruising in Alaska.

Responsible tourism tips

It’s perfectly legal for Alaska Natives to make or buy walrus ivory statuettes, fur shrugs and whale baleen fishing rods. But we don’t recommend buying animal souvenirs – not least because some animal products often can’t be transported out of the USA. Muskox scarves and blankets are a good sustainable alternative, with wool harvested when the beasts shed their substantial coats every summer. Follow the rangers’ advice when hiking and camping: if you pack it in, pack it out. Denali National Park and Preserve has started a zero landfill project, so take note of the strict recycling policies. Or even better, bring reusable travel mugs and water bottles. The mileage of recycling in remote Alaska in phenomenal. Plastic chucked in the recycling bins in Denali travels 320km to a processing center, before being shipped over 3,000km to recycling facilities outside Alaska.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Paxson Woelber] [Alaska Natives: National Park Service, Alaska Region] [Alaska’s climate crisis: National Park Service, Alaska Region] [From gold rush to oil rush: NOAA Photo Library] [Cruise country: Jeff]