Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Nature-Based Tourism in Seldovia Or Not

As threatened, I read the study "Nature-Based Tourism in Southeast Alaska:Results from 2005 and 2006 Field Study" by Darcy Dugan, Ginny Fay, Steve Colt of the Institute of Social and Economic Research of University of Alaska Anchorage and Eco-Systems. Funding for the study came from Alaska Conservation Foundation, The University of Alaska GINA Project, and The Wilderness Society. The stated purpose is to "add to the information and knowledge base available to help people make informed decisions." Sounds interesting, right? Here is the link to the paper at UAA website,
I read this study as essentially descriptive and it did not address the development of tourism and its effects on local communities in a critical manner. It outlined the significant financial impact of the tourism industry in the communities in SE. It sought to place an annual value or describe the value of maintaining pristine or simi-pristine areas for nature-based tourism.

I am somewhat conflicted regarding tourism development in Seldovia. It is a little creepy having people walk around and look at us like we are a bunch of rubes."Oooh, Honey! Look at that freaky looking dude, driving that old truck with the kids and the dog in the back. Take a picture." Personally, I try to subtly interject myself into as many of these photos as I can; summer fun! But I like the tourist as well, because those people were me and Tracy 13 years ago. Getting off the Rainbow Connection, walking down the middle of Main Street. Tracy saying, "This is where I want to have kids." Me saying, somewhat stunned, "I thought we didn't want kids." I knew then Tracy would be having a child. Now in deep for 11 years and with the kid showing up 10 years ago the picture is complete. I am now wondering where is the kid going to get the demeaning and debasing job in the next couple of years. I mowed lawns and had a series of degrading low-paid service sector jobs in my early teens that taught me that I must evolve and find a better way. Tourism is going to be in Seldovia. How it is going to happen and how it will or if it will expand, I think this study gives some idea and may "help people make informed decisions."

Below is "Key Findings" from the study. I commented on them in bold type as I read along and saw how they related to Seldovia. I am not going to be exhaustive and I am ignorant of many factors that should be considered, but this is mostly an exercise for me and my two other readers!

8.1 Key Findings
Nature-based tourism generates over $250 million per year of direct business revenues in Sitka, Juneau and Chichagof Island for the companies we surveyed. This is most likely an underestimate of total revenue because not all nature-based tourism businesses and business sectors were surveyed or included in our estimates. Also, this total does not include sales tax
revenue to local government. In addition, the summer of 2006 was especially wet, which decreased activity for some businesses.

A number of key findings emerged from this research, despite its limited geographic scope.
These include the following:
• Tourism in Southeast Alaska is primarily focused on nature-based activities as people are attracted to the region for its beautiful scenery, fisheries, wildlife, marine mammals, glaciers, and other natural attributes.
We got some of that going on.

• Nature-based tourism creates a significant economic ripple effect that keeps money circulating through many sectors of the economy. This money supports jobs in marketing, support services, food and beverages, accommodations, fuel sales, government, and other sectors.
That's basic economics, the multiplier effect. But a lot of the profits will be taken out of the economy as dividends for corporate shareholders and for summer entrepreneurs who take their profits elsewhere, but that is were an appropriate tax comes in. Hardly anyone ever agrees to be taxed and taxes seem to be complicated here!

• A large and growing portion of Southeast Alaska’s tourism sector and visitors are cruise ship passengers. These visitors are similarly interested in nature-based tourism services as are independent travelers. The majority of shore excursions provide nature-based activities, from hikes and glacier viewing to flightseeing and forest canopy zip lines.
Substitute ”Summer Daily Ferry” for cruise ship and that seems true. As far as excursion infrastructure we only have the ATVentures, the new folks in the Synergy/Parka Lady Cabin, KayakAttack and the Linwood on certain nights (you are never quite sure where you will end up during a Linwood adventure).

• There is a complex and extremely competitive system for prebooking shore excursions the cruise ship. (sic) Businesses with exclusive cruise contracts make price and tour information only available to cruise passengers and often agree not to sell tours without going through the cruise line. While having a shore excursion contract with cruise lines appears to ensure a consistent client base, the trade-off is accepting the marketing, advertising, pricing, and commission restrictions imposed by the cruise companies.
Maybe it will be exclusive contracts with the “Daily Ferry Company”. This is where we will all benefit from the good communication so we can understand where we are all coming from and going to, and focus on long term benefit to the entire community. Certainly some may benefit more, but this in still America, and that's how it works.

• The tourism businesses in cruise ports of call that appear to be most successful either have a cruise ship shore excursion contract or are catering to overnight (non-cruise) guests with high quality and high value services. Examples of these types of businesses include sportfishing lodges and multi-day yacht cruises.
It seems like the businesses focusing on high-end travelers to be successful there has to be more here. More lodges, more stuff to buy and more stuff to do. The client's lifestyle revolves around making, or having a large amount of money and finding places to spend large amounts of money. With more here more demand will be created and the competition will create demand and hopefully everyone does better. Other models would be that there is always a Safeway across the street from a Kogers with an Albertson’s a block away. These corporations aren’t dumb; they all make money.

• Unless a company offers a new creative shore excursion idea, it is difficult to compete with businesses with existing cruise contracts. This is especially true if the new business requires a large number of clients to be profitable.
Seldovia will have to worry about that if we ever have more going on here.

• There are a number of companies, however, that are tapping into new and creative markets including canopy ziplines, glass bottom boats, and an amphibious “duck” tour.
Local opportunities, but where do people put them. In SE everyone has access to public lands and operator permits.

• Some operators attribute the increased interest in adventure activities to a change in cruise ship clientele. In recent years, cruise companies have been catering to a younger crowd, targeting families. In any event, increasing numbers of passengers are interested in more active pursuits.

• For shore excursions aimed at cruise passengers, competition exists not just with companies within a community but with other ports, as people are booking their shore excursions in advance and look at all the options. Sitka companies mentioned they were carefully tracking ziplines in Juneau and Ketchikan, dogsled tours on the Mendenhall Glacier, and other activities to see which market niche they could capture.
We have to compete with Homer and Halibut Cove. Homer is a mini-Kenai with a view and patchouli and Halibut Cove is not really a town, but a collection of summer homes occupied occasionally. We are trending that direction. Although they have the access to State Parks. And the houses are interesting, if the people aren’t.

• There is some evidence that visitors are willing to pay premium prices for higher quality experiences in more pristine environments. It is not clear, however, what specific attributes (seclusion, fishing experience, food, services, perceived exclusivity, and environmental amenities) are the key components of this higher market value.
People have been mining, logging and riding those damn ATV all over the pristine environments recently and for years, but that is all interesting history that can be marketed. And you really can’t see all the shit on the bottom of the ocean.

• It is possible to design a community-based tourism program that provides employment to local residents as is occurring in Hoonah. However, Elfin Cove appears to bring in more in gross revenues than Hoonah with about one-eighth as many visitors because Hoonah’s operation relies on volume while Elfin Cove relies on higher-priced fishing lodge experiences. Day trips seem to be relatively high-cost, low-profit operations.
Looking at it from our underdeveloped perspective in Seldovia, it makes me want to choose one form of development over the other. False either/or dilemma. (This make twice in one blog that I have used knowledge from long ago college courses. Economics and Logic. College wasn’t a waste of time look how it is paying off!!!) Both ways of development could still happen, as well as not happen. There are a couple new developments along with some longstanding family businesses. Maybe the ferry is a part of a community-based development plan, but the infrastructure is not present on this side and the build it and they will come strategy is a long held Alaskan model for government that pans out occasionally, i.e. Matanuska diary, barely elevators, pipeline.

• Independent travelers appear to avoid the crowds and many are repeat visitors. Most tend to stay longer and have more open itineraries than those on cruise ships or organized tours. These characteristics make independent travelers more difficult to survey directly.

• The primary marketing mechanisms for smaller, non-cruise related businesses are the Internet and word of mouth. In addition, many customers return to the same fishing lodge, yacht tour, or other business year after year.
Thank the Glovers for My relatives do keep up with the town happenings, but they are mostly looking for Andy’s new reports and the photos. And everytime I talk to them about the site, I am amazed at how many hits the site gets. I must say that I do miss Savannah’s reporting in the Herald.

• Companies in several communities expressed a desire to move toward more marine wildlife viewing and sightseeing and away from sport fishing. These operators preferred wildlife viewing as it was less stressful with less pressure to catch fish. Wildlife viewing is highly attractive to visitors due to spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife including whales and other marine mammals. Some operators were making this shift, while others think they would not be able to match the revenue generated by sport fishing.

• Weather has a significant impact on business for companies whose tours are not prebooked on cruise ships. Operators noted a marked difference between the sunny, dry summer of 2004 and the remarkably wet summer of 2006. Owners noted that visitors walking off the ship in the rain were much less likely to go on marine tours or hikes in soggy conditions, and their seasonal revenue was down. Businesses with cruise contracts did not experience this setback as passengers are not reimbursed for presold tours when weather conditions are poor. The one exception was flightseeing, where companies had to cancel tours due to unsafe weather conditions.
We have better weather than SE.

• Promoting wildlife watching is an important marketing strategy for Southeast Alaska communities. Visitors’ bureaus produced pamphlets with charismatic megafauna, such as whales and bears. Bureau staff cited studies showing the desire to see wildlife is what attracts a large portion of out-of-state visitors.
Anchorage is almost out of state and our environment on the south side of the Bay is different than Homer; we can market to that.

• A significant economic question that emerges from this research is how the public lands might be managed to maximize the economic returns to residents of Southeast Alaska communities, especially the smaller communities that can only accommodate smaller numbers of visitors at one time.
This is a big one along with the taxes. There are no public lands, such as the Tongass and Chugach National Forrest, Glacier Bay National Park etc. adjacent to Seldovia. We have some easements that take people to small parcels but the surrounding lands are privately owned and there utilization may change rapidly as SNA sees additional opportunities to maximize the benefits to their shareholders. That is what corporations do in this day and age and if you don't like it you better move to Cuba, no further, China, actually you can't go anywhere. There certainly are examples of this happening locally where the corporations benefit shareholder over the benefit to the community. For there to be significant capital invested locally, other people, corporations need to have access assured. That would be a lawyer thing to have looked at. Maybe SNA is looking at developing all this infrastructure themselves and the jobs that are developed will be of benefit to the community. It is that multiplier effect again.

Like I said I don't have an expansive grasp of all the issues, but I see ongoing inability of the community to develop an industry that could be a part of a healthier economy. Let's face it the only growth I am seeing is the influx of doctors/lawyers building summer homes and hippies living in wall tents and chicken coops. That maybe enough though.


Salt said...

me and my two other readers!

I feel so special. Do we gain extra points for re-reading?

Thanks for the link to the study and for the analysis. Without having read (the study) beyond what you've said, I've replied to some of your comments below.

this total does not include sales tax revenue to local government

And keep in mind that anything done by the tribe is outside this potential city government revenue stream, even while it may raise costs for city infrastructure. Given that there are only about six of us left inside the city young enough to pay property taxes, this is a ticking time bomb of fiscal disaster the city has wholly failed to address.

taxes seem to be complicated here

You know, I'm not sure whether it's truly more complicated or simply more personal. The curse of small town government is that every opinion has a face. For example, the council didn't just vote to rescind taxes on airplanes because private planes bring us such a huge amount of our local revenue (something I've not particularly observed, but then, the councils powers of observation are, to be charitable, different from mine); the council voted to remove taxes on their friend XX. That's not specific to taxes, entirely--when the city manager told the council to raise harbor fees "because we can get away with it," what he was saying was that you and I should pay to run this city so we can let friend XX off. So long as no one presents any given tax as part of a comprehensive overview of how they all fit into a well-though-out, responsible municipal budget, it's inevitable, I feel, that they will be judged solely on personal grounds of I win/someone I dislike loses.

Maybe it will be exclusive contracts with the “Daily Ferry Company”. This is where we will all benefit from the good communication

Communicate all you want, but it takes both sides to generate joint action and that seems no likelier now than it has for the past decade.

Seldovia will have to worry about that if we ever have more going on here.

Um, I see it differently: Seldovia has to worry about that since we have nothing much going on here now. The fact is that most tourists want to be led by the hand. Just turning them loose to enjoy the area flummoxes them--an observation based on many many hours behind a gift shop desk answering the question "but what is there to do here?" Right now, there's not much here to entertain those tourists, and I'm not sure where that business expansion is going to come from given our demographic shift to retirees/seasonals in recent years.

We have to compete with Homer and Halibut Cove.

Exactly, and until Seldovians engage in creative thought, rather than just copying other local communities (as has characterized both the council and the chamber in many decisions of the past few years), we're not going to be competitive.

People have been mining, logging and riding those damn ATV all over the pristine environments recently and for years

Keep in mind, though, that "pristine" is relative to their experience, not ours. A moose standing in the midst of a clearcut is still exciting to someone from NYC and for someone used to living with highways and busy streets, an ATV track can be a mysterious path through the wilderness rather than SOMETHING THAT CAUSES OUR BRAINS TO BURST WITH RAGE.


We have better weather than SE.

True. Unfortunately, it's still less clement than many visitors find palatable for outdoor activities. I get a lot of whiners on my historic walking tours who seem personally aggrieved by the rain, even though they refuse to carry a raincoat or umbrella.

And then, too, there are few non-business places they can go to get a break from the rain. For example, those who bring a picnic used to be able to go to the lake to eat under the shelter. But now that the city has essentially forgotten about the strollway (and since none of the council walk anywhere or have kids who do, that's understandable, I guess), they're missing the tourist bet. I haul lost tourists out of that bog on a constant basis all summer: they see that lake/walkway/picnic spot on the map and end up in there up to their knees in mud and mosquitoes and boy are they pissed. So, yeah, swell visitor activity there.

For there to be significant capital invested locally, other people, corporations need to have access assured. That would be a lawyer thing to have looked at. Maybe SNA is looking at developing all this infrastructure themselves and the jobs that are developed will be of benefit to the community.

SNA has been pretty clear about stating that there will never be access other than that they develop for profit--the 17b right-of-way up the Seldovia Valley is a prime example of this (and Mike Beal has clearly and frankly stated that their objective is to tie things up legally long after everyone else is impoverished and/or has lost interest, no matter what is determined to be legally correct). And given the example of the "ferry" project and their in-town holdings, it seems to me that there is no disincentive for them to continue to turn anything profitable or taxable over to the Tribe to avoid both normal corporate laws and any tax debt to the city. Once a business is so incorporated into the Tribe's assets, then, it quite properly does not address the needs of the non-Native community (unless specific grant terms specify otherwise), and indeed should not (again, Beal has said, quite openly, that their obligation is to the shareholder/Tribe member, even if that obligation is contrary to the public welfare). So while it would be nice to hope that there is some slop-over from Native business activities into the general populace, that is by definition going to be as limited to their own members as possible. Or, to put it more briefly, this is me not holding my breath.

So does that mean I'm against nature-based tourism or any other kind of tourism? No. I tend to take a fairly pragmatic view that any community has to make the best of what they have to sell, and that's one of the few things we do have here. I don't feel that either the tribal or city governments have done a particularly effective job of this yet--the city's premise that we can simply demand that a business be established here (see: cannery at the waterfront property "project") and the city's economic policy (best summed up, to my observation, by Councilman McInnes' statement several years back that "it's not important that a business make a profit; what's important is that it employ people") don't seem to be rooted especially well in what I understand of economic theory.

Like you, I kinda cringe at being the entertainment that's being sold at the same time I'm hustling, myself, to make a few bucks off of those same tourists who are peering at me with such bemusement.

And there's a real limit to how much traffic that "nature" and "wilderness" are likely to bear up under and still remain as attractive as they were when they drew me here, especially under a city government that comes out in favor of any form of business over any form of conservation OR the quality of life of local residents (read the city's comprehensive plan, ever, that specifies that the major focus of city government be Main Street tourist-oriented businesses?). Think I'm being too harsh? This is the city that asked for a separate GRS for the Outside Beach because it's a priceless marine resource, but endorses the ATV destruction of that same resource for the sake of their children's amusement and has allowed all of the driftwood to be carted off for private profit or to be burned.

So while done "well" (whatever that is--but that's part of what the study's about, of course) this could be an asset, I'm not sure I have the faith in the local power structures to believe that they will do it either effectively or tolerably. In the end, I guess, I take the most faith in their demonstrated ineffectiveness.

Freshwrestler said...

Salt you are the only other person reading this post. The wife says she only skimmed it to find incorrect grammar. She does like to find fault here, because in so many other things I approach perfection.

I can't disagree with points you have made and agree with most of them. It is always good to get more history and I find it supporting my thinking about the whole situation. It is not a government(city) to government(tribe) situation but a municipality (weak-underfunded understaffed with a small uninvolved population) v. a corporation(well funded and capitalized with various ventures and federal grants). As we all know the tribe and corporation are hand in glove. I can't image a situation where the tribe might oppose an action of the Corporation. It would be like punching onesself in the face.

So we are expecting a government with limited resources and even more limited regulatory abilities to work with a corporation that may even see the city as aninterference to greater profits.
The point is Corporations are selfish institutions, especially in the current political and economic climate. All our retirement funds are now tied up in corporate performance. (how smart was wall street in pulling that one off) For Beale to say anything other than "their obligation is to the shareholder/Tribe member, even if that obligation is contrary to the public welfare" would be CEO career suicide.
So the City has struggled to find some power base that it can use to influence SNA's decisions. But it ends getting involved and then regretting involvement later when SNA acts like a corporation. Of course SNA is going to try and tuck the ferry under the SVT umbrella, of course they are going to find that the best landing spot for the new ferry happens to be on SVT owner property. Of course they are going to pare down the ferry project to a business operation, instead of an infrastructure asset benefiting the original communities designated. Of coourse they aren't going to provide Senior meals to everyone (that one might be personal. It is all corporate behavior. And they can afford a sharp, politically connected,CEO and boards that brought in the pork grants and profit. Another big contrasting point!
It is an unequal relationship and I am trying to think of it in terms of tit for tat gaming strategies. I believe the city has screwed itself, but SNA maybe close behind. Karma baby!