Cruise Company Grapples with 'Population Pollution'

Cruise Company Grapples with 'Population Pollution'

Royal Caribbean, the Miami cruise company that a year ago seemed poised to be thrown out of Alaska for polluting its waters, has largely weathered that controversy with a significant investment in environmental programs and community relations.

Company executives, on a tour of Alaska's ports this week, are running into a new source of contention. For lack of a better term, it might be called population pollution.

While people attending a community meeting in Juneau Monday night generally gave the Royal Caribbean high marks for its ecological sensitivity, they said the company must play a leadership role in diminishing, or diluting, the number of humans it releases into the local habitat.

"Each year, the vessels seem to be larger and larger, and they're bringing in more people, and we can't spread out," said one woman, who spoke at Royal Caribbean's community meeting, held at the Alaskan Native Brotherhood Hall. "We're on a small strip of land here. It's just so crowded."

Jack Williams, president of Royal Caribbean, sympathized with the frustration. The reality, he said, is that if the number of cruise passengers is overwhelming to locals, it's probably too many for his passengers as well.

"Saturation -- that's a big issue, not just for Juneau but a lot of communities up here," he said. "The moment it becomes unpleasant for the community is the precise moment it becomes unpleasant for our guests."

Statistics suggest why the issue is on the front burner in Alaska. Nationally, cruises represent about 4% of the vacation market. In Alaska, cruises are 80% of the tourism business -- bringing in 600,000 visitors annually, versus 150,000 independent travelers.
Royal Caribbean's meeting was one of several it is hosting to address concerns about the cruise industry's growth here.

The fact that the conversation was about congestion -- and was conducted in a civil manner -- says a great deal about how far Royal Caribbean's reputation has come since last year, when it pleaded guilty to pollution charges in Miami, admitting it had fouled waters from the Caribbean to Alaska's famed Inside Passage.

Last year, Williams undertook a similar tour of Alaska's communities and encountered open hostility from locals, who saw the company as the latest in a long line of outside opportunists determined to exploit Alaska's treasures without giving much in return.

"Last year, we met under some pretty different circumstances," Williams said. "There were a lot of people angry at our company, and rightfully so."

Alaskans have a history of provocation when it comes to environmental issues. Just last week, a group calling itself the People Spill Response Team blocked a new tunnel near Whittier. The group said the new tunnel threatened to create a "people spill" in Prince William Sound.

Williams, who wasn't president of Royal Caribbean when the illegal dumping took place, pledged last year that the company would clean up its act.

And, in many ways, it has. Today, it burns cleaner fuel in Alaska than elsewhere, for instance, to hold down smoke emissions. And its water treatment systems, the company says, exceed federal standards -- in keeping with the company's ABC program. The acronym stands for "Above and Beyond Compliance."

The company also has taken great pains to stress that it is committed to the community. Since January, its civic contributions in Alaska have reached $550,000.

Sybil Davis, director of the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council, said a grant her organization received enabled it to bring in guest musicians to mentor young students. "That kind of thing is a great opportunity, and it was possible because of a grant you gave us," she told Williams.

She was just one of numerous audience members who rose to thank Williams for money his company contributed.

Still, the crowd seemed uneasy when Williams said that the company will soon be deploying marginally larger ships in Juneau, and that the company's passenger capacity is set to grow 45% over the next five years.

"Our public infrastructure is undercapitalized," said one audience member. So when ships back up in Juneau, it typically means everything from streets to local parks -- such as the incredibly popular Mendenhall Glacier -- suffer from overload.

"You could do us all a favor by taking a leadership role on public infrastructure issues," said the audience member, who also said the state legislature and Congress need to provide Alaska more money to improve tourist facilities.

Williams was noncommittal about that issue. But in an interview he said there's no question that, to the tourism industry, Alaska is as big a gold mine today as it was to nugget prospectors a century ago.

"I think we have a great future in this state," he said. As one indication, next year the company is launching Royal Celebrity, a land-based cruise on luxury rail cars here.

That's not to say there are simple solutions, however. For instance, at the meeting, company officials touted that new ships run on gas turbines, which produce less of the smoke that bothers residents.

But an audience member suggested that might mean increased emissions of carbon dioxide, possibly contributing to global warming.

Nancy Wheatley, head of Royal Caribbean's environmental programs, conceded that could be the case. "With a lot of environmental issues," she said, "there are trade-offs."