A tale of two tourist markets

There’s two kinds of tourists in Skagway: the pampered and the puritan

Last week’s hike on the Chilkoot Trail gave me the chance to do some in-depth field research on two very different segments of the tourist market: the pampered and the puritan.

You meet the puritans on the trail or in the Chilkoot Trail Office on Broadway in Skagway. There are more than a few resemblances between the 17th-century puritans of New England and today’s tourist variety. Both groups have a penchant for self-denial, guilt and enjoy a healthy bit of the fear of God.

Think of lukewarm oatmeal for breakfast instead of eggs Benedict, or drinking filtered swamp water while going four whole days without the latest craft beer from Seattle.

The guilt takes many forms. Some talk about the climate impact of their airplane flight to experience one of the last true wildernesses. Others are worried their camping habits are not truly “no trace,” leaving tell-tale walking stick marks on endangered tufts of Baikal Sedge or Bastard Toadflax. And others just feel guilty that their premium Starbucks trail coffee and organic fair-trade dehydrated pad thai aren’t quite authentic enough.

Most of the hikers on the trail with us also seemed to enjoy fear.

I recall seeing the deputy minister of tourism for Yamal, Russia, on television once. When asked if he was worried that Yamal’s rugged wilderness and gulag history would scare off tourists, he replied in a thick Russian accent: “The tourist who is afraid of Yamal is afraid of life!”

He should visit the Skagway Trail Office for a lesson in how to operationalize this strategy in a modern park system.

The park rangers gave us a wonderfully professional briefing, and also succeeded in scaring us straight into the mountain shop with their apocalyptic weather forecast. We immediately stimulated the economy by buying more gaiters and thermal layers.

At Sheep Camp, the last camp before the big hike over the snowpacks of the summit, the ranger on duty again troweled on the worry. Horizontal rain. Plunging temperatures. Slippery rocks. Bears. Avalanches. Collapsing snow bridges. I thought she was about to bring up Sasquatches, when instead she gave the floor to a Yukon poet who gave a stirring recitation of “The Quitter” by Robert Service.

That’s the poem with lines like, “When you’re lost in the Wild, and you’re scared as a child/And Death looks you bang in the eye…” and “it’s dead easy to die.”

We enjoyed our time with the puritans enormously.

From an economic point of view, there’s a lot to like about them. One professional couple from Vancouver heard about the Atlin music festival and came up to do some hiking as well. They didn’t need any expensive marketing or rescuing, and proceeded to spend a week in our region spending a few bucks on hotels, restaurants and rental cars.

Another couple was even more low maintenance. They were on an inspirational journey that involved paddling from Bellingham to Skagway, hiking the Chilkoot and then paddling to the Bering Strait. While not big spenders like a tourism econometrician might like, they nonetheless didn’t cost us much and spent a few bucks in local establishments along the way.

Although we had a great time on the trail, I had my group fired up to enjoy the revived sin city of Bennett. When skiing through in March 2016, I had seen the new hotel under construction. It’s a joint venture between Parks Canada and the Carcross/Tagish First Nation and is near the site of Donald Trump’s grandfather’s Arctic Hotel. I told everyone on the trail to eat the rest of their rations because we were sure to be able to get a bison burger and Yukon Gold at the new Arctic Hotel.

Whoops. It’s still under construction. I had to tell everyone that for a real authentic Gold Rush experience, they should buy some of the beautifully crafted moccasins at the shop by St. Andrew’s church and eat those.

Bennett Railway Station has also stopped providing lunches. A railway employee told me that they could run more trains with more tourists if they didn’t have lunch at Bennett.

I can see the impact on the drivers of operational efficiency, but the Bennett stew lunch will be missed.

Which brings us to the pampered segment. In addition to the railroad running more trains, I also noticed that some of the cars looked new.

Sure enough, the Skagway News reports that Alaska is headed to break an all-time record for cruise ship passengers this year, with a forecast of 1,060,000 visitors according to Cruise Lines International Association Alaska (CLIAA).

Apparently Alaska’s share of the global cruise market is inching upwards. The state was the sixth most popular destination in the world in 2016.

Cruise lines are adding sailings and swapping in bigger ships on the route. The Carnival Legend will make 19 cruises this year instead of 17 visits in 2016. Bigger ships, such as the 4,000-passenger Norwegian Bliss, will be visiting. The 3,100-passenger Explorer of the Seas is replacing the 2,100-passenger Jewel of the Seas.

It’s no coincidence that the Skagway News had a story about improvements to port facilities on its front page, right up there with stories about the opioid epidemic and a pesky (but very cute) red squirrel on the Railroad Dock.

Skagway gets a big share of Alaska’s million-plus cruise visitors. The town expects 377 ship visits and about 793,300 visitors this year.

While Chilkoot puritans like myself may enjoy our lukewarm oatmeal and get annoyed by the crowds on Broadway, you have to admit that almost a million pampered tourists generate a lot of jobs. You recognize longtime Skagwegians from the Buckwheat Ski Classic working on the train, for example.

CLIAA, the industry group, claims that “visitor industry-related” employment accounts for 21 per cent of employment in Southeast Alaska. Since these jobs pay a bit less than average, this accounts for 14 per cent of labour income.

I suppose one lesson is to do something memorable for your visitors, whether on the pampering or fear sides of the ledger. Many people enjoy a bit of both. After subsisting on dehydrated gruel during their hike, our new Vancouver friends were headed to a fancy halibut dinner in Skagway. And, for the pampered customers on the train that day, White Pass threw in just a soupçon of fear with a well-timed locomotive fire.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.

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