Friday, May 19, 2017

Alaska town reinvents itself as cruise destination, some dislike the culture and commerce changes

Visit Ketchikan map
An Alaska town facing an economic collapse has reinvented itself as a tourist magnet, Melissa Block reports for NPR. When the timber industry moved away from Ketchikan, officials decided to take advantage of their natural resources, turning the town into a premier docking spot for cruise ships. They expect a million visitors this summer, and say the town of 13,000 often doubles in size from as many as six ships on any given day.

"Ketchikan sits on an island at the southernmost end of southeast Alaska, a prime spot for cruise ships navigating Alaska's Inside Passage," Block notes. "The landscape is spectacular: snow-capped mountains, glaciers descending into narrow fjords, and all around, the dense Tongass National Forest. At 17 million acres (bigger than West Virginia), the Tongass is the largest national forest in the U.S."

Cruise ship tourists in Ketchikan
(NPR photo by Elissa Nadwomy)
The town once relied almost exclusively on timber, Block writes. "For many decades, the spruce, hemlock and cedar trees of the Tongass have also been a source of timber for the logging industry. At its peak, logging camps dotted the islands of southeast Alaska, and pulp mills were robust economic drivers of the region. One by one, those pulp mills shut down, faced with global competition, new environmental regulations, lawsuits and fines for pollution violations," with the last one closing in 1997.

Ketchikian gift shop items (Nadwomy photo)
Not everyone in Ketchikan has enjoyed the town's transition, Block writes. Longtime Ketchikan resident Eric Collins told Block, "We don't know who we are anymore. We had shoe stores in Ketchikan. We had work clothes stores in Ketchikan. We had a Chevy dealer and a Ford dealer. They're all gone." Block writes, "What's replaced them? Lots of jewelry and watch stores, some of them owned by the cruise ship companies themselves. Also, souvenir and gift shops, as well as local tour operations."

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