The following case study by Gabriel Scott, the Alaska representative of the Cascadia Wildlands Project, shows that ecotourism is also big business in Alaska and causes serious pressures as over a million visitors annually are seeking out more and more remote wilderness areas to vacation in. The environmental impacts are immense, with cruise ships dumping poisons into the ocean, hotels, lodges and ski resorts mushrooming, recreational vehicles raving through nature reserves and helicopters buzzing around to remote locations. As a result, resentment among local residents is mounting and translating into demonstrations, lawsuits and other forms of resistance. Gabriel’s paper clearly reveals the commonalities between tourism-related problems in Alaska - a part of the United States - and the Third World: the colonialization by outside corporations, local and indigenous people’s struggle for cultural and ecological integrity, and authorities’ neglect of public concerns.

The campaign coordinating groups:

Third World Network

Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (t.i.m.-team), Thailand

Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM), Malaysia

Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), Malaysia



by Gabriel Scott (Cascadia Wildlands Project Alaska Office, Eugene, Oragon, USA;

email:  )

Alaska, the “last” frontier, has a consistent history of colonial exploitation. First they came for the furs, then it was for the gold, then for the fish and timber, and now they are crazy with oil-fever.

In each instance an outside power speedily decimated the resource, then packed up their riches and went home, leaving Alaskans behind to deal with the ecological disharmony and social disintegration that always follows conquest.

While often prefixed with adjectives like “pure” and “untrammeled,” the Alaskan wilderness is littered with the junk left behind by these hasty retreats. Giant holes in the ground remain from gold-diggers who spent a few summers getting rich (or poor) back in 1900.  Rusting heaps of steel sit confused and lonely in sweeping braided river basins. Falling-down logging camps rot on uninhabited rainforest islands in Southeast. Radioactive and toxic trash from military experiments dots the ocean floor in the west, and in the boreal forests of the interior. Old (and new) oil-field roads lie in a web across the vast arctic tundra on the north slope of the Brooks Range, while logging roads along the rainforest coastline to the south slump away into salmon-spawning streams.

A pattern is evident to any honest, informed, and thinking person. First comes the boom, when wealth appears like magic—then comes the bust, when the economic base disappears overnight. Resource by resource, Outside industry over-taxes our land’s generosity.

Many Alaskans are, naturally, tired of that.

The search for alternatives to industrial resource extraction has led many to embrace the tourism industry. The environmentally inclined among them like to call it ecotourism, and it is persistently framed in opposition to consumptive resource extraction.

Driving an explosion of outdoor recreation is a rising environmental “awareness” among the middle classes in the USA. The out of doors are in. As life in the urban “civilized” world becomes increasingly intolerable, Americans are heading outside in droves.

Alaska is a premium destination for those seeking to escape “the world.” It is a chance to go back in time 100 years—to when things were “like they’ve always been.” There were over a million visitors to Alaska last summer, and they have become a billion-dollar industry. Only fishing employs more people. Tourists annually swarm the state after spring thaw, like mosquitoes hovering around any large mammal.

For all practical purposes, virtually all tourism in Alaska is ecotourism. Polling by industry, state and independent sources shows that tourists overwhelmingly come looking for wildlife, scenery, native culture, and frontier history. With such seemingly pure motivations, how can tourism go wrong?

While tourism is persistently framed in opposition to colonialist resource extraction, Alaska’s experience supports an opposite conclusion. Looking at the stories of two small Alaskan towns, it is evident that the recent ecotourism boom is a continuation of historic cycles of frontier conquest. And this time the resource slated for extraction is not gold or oil—they are after culture and wilderness. 




Heroism often comes tainted with villainy. Such was the case when legendary naturalist John Muir, eventual founder of the Sierra Club, steamed up the Inside Passage of Canada’s Pacific coast to southeast Alaska in 1879. His  “discovery” of Glacier Bay (more accurately, a young native guide reluctantly showed it to him), pioneered an almost mythological voyage of discovery. Awed by the Alexander Archipelago--mountains jutting straight out of the ocean, giant ancient rainforests and glaciers “calving” icebergs--and intrigued by the initial clash of frontier missionary and indigenous Tlingit cultures, Muir widely published his accounts in newspapers and magazines, and later in his classic book, “Travels In Alaska.”

Muir’s odyssey is today mimicked by over 600,000 cruise ship passengers every summer. These floating hotels, including some of the largest cruise ships afloat, run 7 and 10-day “cruise-tours” from Vancouver, British Columbia up the inside passage, stopping in the various small towns for a few hours of shopping and pre-arranged tours. They connect with the land-portion of the tour in either the gold-rush town of Skagway, or across the Gulf of Alaska in Seward, or Valdez in Prince William Sound. Once on land, passengers board buses and trains for several more days sightseeing, rafting, flying, and (of course) shopping as they hop between the several luxury hotels built especially for them.

“Cruise Industry Drives Growth,” summarizes a recent state-contracted study, which charts growth in Alaska cruise tourism at 15% per year between 1995-99.  [1] Nearly 2/3 of all tourists to the state come as part of one of these package tours, although the state never phrases its statistics that way. [2] As many people take a cruise to Southeast in summer as live in the entire state.

Haines is a town of maybe 2,000 people on a narrow peninsula that juts out into Lynn Canal at the northern head of the Tongass National Forest. Steep, snow-capped mountains rise in all directions, a narrow band of giant spruce and hemlock trees giving way to colorful alpine tundra, sheer rock faces, and immense ice walls.  Over one ridge is Glacier Bay. Just down Lynn Canal is Juneau, the state capitol. Haines is one of only three towns in Southeast with a road that goes anywhere, and so has historically been a gateway from the water to the land.

Timber used to be the big business here, until the last major sawmill shut down when the global market for timber went bust in the ‘90s. In a deliberate attempt to establish a “sustainable,” “clean” tourism industry, the town put in a new pier to accommodate cruise ships. Possessed with an excess of local character and charm, they hoped to preserve their uniquely peaceful lifestyle by sharing it.

The largest ships dwarfed the town, doubling the population for several hours with a wave of tourists. A very few local businessmen profited substantially by offering river rafting and wildlife viewing in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, and flightseeing over Glacier Bay (just around the bend by boat, over the mountains by air). The people of Haines were glad for the influx of dollars, but they weren’t willing to trade in their quality of life for it. They had seen what became of neighboring Skagway, where the town has been molded into a false, plastic version of a gold-rush outpost.  Haines wanted to be proactive about trying to direct the industry’s development. They wanted to “do it right the first time.”

In July of 1999 Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, one of the biggest cruise companies, was convicted on 21 felony counts and ordered to pay $18 million in fines by a federal grand jury. Despite concerted efforts to cover it up by forging documents and lying to investigators, they were caught red-handed rigging pipes to bypass purification systems and dumping oily bilge and untreated greywater in American waters. An investigation uncovered a fleetwide conspiracy involving illegal oil dumping, wastewater discharge, and systematic obstruction of justice on dozens of occasions in the Caribbean and Alaska. [3]

Since then, things have only gotten worse for the cruise companies. A steady stream of subpoenas, indictments and convictions continue to flow in.  Town by town, cruise passenger head taxes are being imposed—Haines, Juneau, Yakutat. A head tax ballot measure in Cordova failed by only one vote, and Cordova doesn’t even GET cruise ships. The state began calling for testing of current wastewater discharges, and even governor Tony Knowles, a sympathetic oil man himself, had to concede that the results were “disgraceful.” The state legislature is loudly amending laws  to close loopholes. The governor demanded a special session this spring to act on cruise dumping legislation. Alaska’s congressional delegation blew off obligatory steam with legislative trickery of their own. Another ballot initiative is in the works that would sharply increase taxes, environmental regulation, and transparency for the cruise companies. This spring, a federal judge ordered the Park Service to reduce the number of cruise-ships it allows into Glacier Bay, in part for fear of the impact to endangered sea mammals.

Apparently unimpressed by all the political noise, the industry stubbornly refuses to change. The first cruise to Alaska this season, the Norwegian Sky, was cited May 3rd for discharging sewage 3,500 times in excess of allowable levels for fecal chloriform.

Perhaps the most vocal opposition to the industry has come from Haines. Passengers off of ships were greeted by protesters with fliers. The independence day parade included an unauthorized float mocking Royal Caribbean. Lawsuits were filed against agencies that permitted excursions for cruise passengers. Cruise industry officials who came to town to explain themselves were berated by furious residents, who demanded to know what poisons might be contaminating their fish.

In December people in Haines were surprised to learn that they had been dropped from all itineraries by Royal Caribbean, the last major cruise operator left in town. “We’ve just had the rug pulled out from under us,” a grim president of the local chamber of commerce told newspapers. “We haven’t hit the floor yet, but we don’t like the sensation of falling, I’ll tell you that.” [4]

Many see this as a blatant attempt at punishment. “We’re the cheapest example that they could make, complained one citizen. “Let all the other ports know that you can’t just raise head taxes and tour taxes without paying a price.” [5] Corporate executives deny that, saying their decisions were purely economic, and had more to do with the rising price of oil.

Regardless of their true intentions, the sudden unilateral removal of Haines from the cruise economy displays the  power of multinational corporations to dictate the terms of business. The people of Haines were betrayed, whether their interest was in economic development and modernization, or in sustainability and conservation. Just as with logging, and mining before that, the local fate was determined in some office far away according to the dictates of an uncompassionate global marketplace.

While the state and industry like to point out that tourism businesses statistically are 90% small, locally-owned operations,  such statistics obscure the real dominance of a few multinational corporations. Cruising dominates the Alaska tourism industry, and the cruise industry is dominated by three companies—P&O Princess, Carnival, and Royal Caribbean. Most tourists give the bulk of their money to one of these three companies. Even “independent” tour guides predominantly depend on the cruise companies for customers.

It is useful to draw some connections between what is happening in Alaska and in other parts of the world. Globally, the Caribbean & Bahamas are by far the largest and most profitable arena in world cruising. The very same ships that invade Alaska each summer, spend their winters in the Caribbean, Central and South America. The very same pattern of colonial disrespect of land, water and residents is familiar to folks in those places as well. 

Cruising is an incredibly profitable way of providing the ecotourist product, in large part because it takes full advantage of economic globalization and liberalized trade rules. Analyst Robert Atwood, of Rutgers University, writes: “cruise ships represent the ultimate in globalization: physically mobile; massive chunks of multinational capital; capable of being ‘repositioned’ anywhere in the world at any time; crewed with labor migrants from up to 50 countries on a single ship; essentially unfettered by national or international regulations.”  [6]

Growth in cruise vacations, due to very rapidly growing demand, is supply-led. How fast the cruise industry grows appears to be merely a function of how many beds on cruise ships are available. This means, 1) fantastic profit margins, which in turn drives consolidation, and 2) intense competition amongst all other segments of the industry for access to this limited supply of cruise ships.

Every port in the world is in competition with every other for cruise ship business. Haines fell prey to the “race to the bottom” commonly referenced by globalization critics.




Unwilling or unable to form a workable relationship with communities in Southeast, but anxious to continue their explosive growth, the tour companies have turned to more remote locales in the interior to serve up as unconquered frontiers.

With Royal Caribbean’s spring 2000 formation of Royal Celebrity Tours, all three of the major tour operators now have a substantial land-based tour company. All have a fleet of first-class sightseeing buses, a line of luxurious railroad cars, and a chain of hotels. All are rapidly expanding holdings and itineraries to more and more remote areas.

The Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve is the largest park in the US. Together with Kluane National Park in the Yukon, the Tatshenshini—Alsek Wilderness Provincial Park in British Columbia, and Glacier Bay National Park to the south, this is the single largest contiguous area of protected wildland anywhere. 

Forget about “wilderness”, this place is Wild. It hardly ever rains, the winters are long and cold, permafrost shifts the ground and heaving rocks and glaciers, swamps and thickets spread out for eons. Geologically active, and biologically very young, the St. Elias Mountains are the highest coastal mountains in the world, with even greater vertical relief than the Himalayas. There is a chunk of ice here bigger than the state of  Rhode Island. The Copper River, on the park’s western border, is one of the world’s great rivers. It meanders over 200 crooked miles, from headwaters in high alpine tundra to a 700,000-acre delta on the Gulf of Alaska. Its salmon runs are certifiably legendary, as are the mosquitoes.

Dotted with villages and allotments of native-owned land, and with small towns on all sides, this is an inhabited wilderness.  Humans live at a very low density, as they have for at least several thousand years. The Ahtna, an Athabaskan tribe, traditionally occupy the drier interior. The Eyak found a home mostly on the Copper River Delta, while the Tlingit lived farther east along the coastline. The Copper River region, roughly the size of the US state of West Virginia, today has just over 3,000 residents.

The Wrangell St. Elias National Park, like many others in Alaska, was formed in 1980 by the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act  (ANILCA).  The landmark legislation, in addition to setting aside tens of millions of acres of federal land as protected wilderness, also aimed to address subsistence fishing and hunting rights of Alaskans. The law provides for a right to hunt and fish for subsistence for any rural resident, including residents within the newly established parks, so long as it remains consistent with park purposes.

On summer solstice of 2000, P&O Princess Cruises announced that it was beginning work immediately near the town of Copper Center on a $10 million dollar luxury hotel on a popular bluff over the Klutina River, about a mile above the rock spit at its convergence with the Copper. Its 93 rooms will serve P&O Princess’ cruise/tour customers. 

This place has never been the target of any kind of large-scale tourism before. Two big busloads each day are scheduled to start rolling into the forgotten town in May 2002.

The decision to build a luxury hotel in this rustic, isolated community was made without even so much as a "what do y'all think?" to local residents. The future form of Copper Center, and the Wrangell St. Elias wilderness, is being determined by a handful of P&O Princess Cruises plc.’s accountants in London.

This lodge is the fifth P&O Princess will have built in Alaska. Adding to other recently expanded properties in Cooper Landing, Trapper Creek, Healy, and Fairbanks, it will give them a grand total of 1,088 rooms statewide.

Their hotels and tours are an incredibly intrusive spectacle. An endless and formidable chain of upper-middle-class-white-american-45+ year-old-couples are put to bed for one night, whisked around on helicopters, airplanes, & jet-boats for 2-hour excursions to remote locations in the bush. River rafting is often popular, as is sport fishing.

This lodge is only the beginning. As one local official put it, "we are sitting on the next big boom in tourism here." If things go smoothly, as they've done at all of their other properties, they WILL expand.

While taken in isolation this project’s effects may seem relatively minor, the long-term cumulative impacts could be huge. What P&O Princess is establishing at the confluence of the Klutina and Copper rivers is the gateway community for industrial tourism in the Wrangell St. Elias. Built on the model of Disneyland—component parts spreading out from a central hub—the various intrusions on nature and culture spin off uncontrollably. Associated infrastructure improvements are lined up to follow. There are calls to pave the road to McCarthy deep inside the park, and to build a trail down a canyon to the Copper River Delta near Cordova, which is considering constructing its own deepwater port to serve cruise ships. Cruise-ship traffic in nearby Prince William Sound can be expected to rise, a “people spill” the ecological equivalent of the famous Exxon Valdez oil spill on Good Friday in 1989.

The almost total lack of constraint on this project from any organized sector is striking. They asked no permission, and get no complaint (from anyone with power).

The number of visitors to the world’s largest park could nearly double in one year as a direct result of this hotel, and the National Park Service is taking no steps to manage for it. Contrary to the common perception that parks are strictly regulated by a powerful federal government, any multinational corporation with the money, it seems, can invade the Wrangell St. Elias. The NPS has had no official contact with Princess.  They don’t know how many visitors the park gets now, what they do, where they come from—let alone what to expect from the new influx of Princess tourists.

There is a clear double standard evident in the National Park Service demands of corporations and residents. While the idea of parks being “locked up” and “fenced off” is a reasonable point of view for subsistence users and residents, who face perpetual limitations and uncertainty whether they will be allowed to remain, the corporate treatment is very different. For instance, while park managers plead for desperately needed funding to collect baseline biological data and do rare plant and animal surveys, millions magically appeared recently to build a new visitors center, just a few miles up the road from the hotel.

There is a double standard in the national environmental establishments’ treatment of the region as well. For example, the Wrangell St. Elias National Park made the National Park Conservation Association’s (NPCA) list of top-ten most endangered parks in the US—primarily because of threats posed by subsistence users and residents. They didn’t mention Princess. This section in that announcement is informative:

Access for subsistence and recreational activities presents yet another challenge. Parts of Wrangell-St. Elias are criss-crossed by all-terrain-vehicle (ATV) trails, particularly along the Nabesna Road. Park managers have a permit system that allows ATV use on 13 established routes, with the intent of curtailing their spread into other areas. [7]

What is wrong with subsistence-using residents to them is that they use too much technology and are therefore not “authentic.” According to this view, the level of technology at use, not it’s cultural context, is the determining characteristic of a “threat.” Therefore, Sierra Club adventure tours into remote wilderness can be viewed as a benign part of the landscape, whereas a bush resident hauling meat home on a four-wheeler is seen as an intrusion. A dubious critique, coming as it is from technologically plugged-in urbanites. But it is the dominant one.

The issue of subsistence rights is not a peripheral concern. While it appears incomprehensible to people living in some of the world’s scoured-over regions, the land here provides. Subsistence hunting and fishing support, to varying degrees, a vast majority of Alaskan rural residents.  Subsistence provides an economic base independent of the global cash economy. And getting one’s living directly off of the land you inhabit is a critical part of Alaska native culture. As the peoples of Alaska have sought to express their cultural identity, subsistence has emerged as a defining element.

Tourism threatens subsistence lifestyles.  What it necessarily involves, killing animals, offends the sensibilities of most tourists, and is viewed with bitter jealousy by the others.  Historically the pattern has been pretty consistent—areas important to tourism are fenced off as parks, the exclusive domain of scenery-seekers and snapshot fanatics—and subsistence use by residents is restricted. In Glacier Bay subsistence trapping and hunting and fishing has been excluded, while cruise ships are invited. The Park Service in the Wrangell has been relatively permissive to subsistence use so far, but pressures to change all that will increase proportionate to the park’s monetary value as a tourist commodity.

The folks who are going to select the Copper River lodge as part of their cruise-tour will likely select it due to the association with salmon—and that means fishing. Sports-fishing competes directly with subsistence in that the actual number of salmon available to residents decreases. And as fishing by tourists becomes more of a money-maker, the relative political influence of subsistence-users is diminished. If there were one fish available, and the state had the choice of “giving” it to a resident for food, or selling it to a tourist, which side do you think they would come down on?

Subsistence users and tourists have proven, in Alaska at least, culturally and economically incompatible.

Tourism is ultimately dependent on commodification. Corporations make profits by selling products. In the case of tourism, the “product” is the culture and homeland of rural, and especially indigenous, Alaskans. Tourists pay to consume that culture—its way of looking at land and wildlife, its history, its mythology and stories, its dances, and especially its art. In order to capitalize on that cultural contact, Alaskan culture has to first be made physically sale-able. As opposed to free and fluid forms of cultural encounter, tourism operates in a global economic system where cash money is the only understandable medium of exchange.

Alaska’s experience with tourism displays the futility of searching for alternatives within the context of a global economic system rooted in exploitation. In Haines, ecotoursim has proven itself to be nothing more than the same patterns of colonial resource extraction repeating themselves—the same cycles of boom & bust, same careless disregard for ecosystems, same loss of community self-determination to corporate bosses, and the same incompatibility with sustainable indigenous cultural and economic systems.

The only real difference between tourism development and clearcutting, stripmining or oil drilling is in its level of visibility as industrial extraction. Especially in it’s early stages, tourism is seen as an alternative or benign force—if it is seen at all. The forthcoming invasion of the world’s biggest protected wilderness by P&O Princess, and the silent consent of that wilderness’ self-professed protectors, shows just how deep that illusion runs.

Looking behind the masks, it is clear that tourism extracts wilderness and exports culture.  Passive complicity to this is bad enough. Outright celebration of it, as in the International Year of Ecotourism, is very dangerous double-speak.


[1] Nichols Gilstrap, Inc.  Nov. 2000. “Strategic Marketing Analysis and Planning for Alaska Tourism.”  State of Alaska statistics and studies can be found at

[2] Alaska Visitor Statistics Program (AVSP). 1999. “Arrival Count, Summer 1999”  McDowell Group.  Juneau.

[3] , put together by the Bluewater Network, is an excellent source of information about cruise ship pollution in the US.

[4] Anchorage Daily News. Dec. 8, 2000. “Haines, Alaska, Shocked by Pullout of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line.”

[5] ibid.

[6] Robert Wood. 2000. Annals of Tourism Research. “Caribbean Cruise Tourism: Globalization at Sea.” 27(2):345-370.