Port expansion promises tourism increase. How can Nome prepare?
The expansion of the Port of Nome has left many residents with questions about how the region will change. The impending development project also offers an attractive case study for researchers who want to understand the impacts of increased cruise ship tourism in the Arctic.
“It’s hard to imagine several thousand cruise ship passengers on Front Street, but when the port gets built, they will come,” says Jim Powell, a researcher at the Alaska Coastal Rainforest Center at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau.
Powell has been in Nome this summer along with several researchers from other institutions to gather data. They want to learn about community impacts—both positive and negative—from cruise ship tourism, infrastructure projects, shipping and climate change.
Rather than descending on the town separately and treading much of the same ground, the researchers established a Nome Research Consortium. The group involves five different universities and four different projects, some of which are funded by the National Science Foundation. The consortium is intended to help the researchers coordinate their field work, share information and reduce the burden on community members.
This work on Nome is only just beginning, and while the analysis will likely take months, if not years, to be published, the researchers can for now offer some lessons they’ve learned from other cities.
One of the research projects looks at cruise ship impacts in five cities, including Juneau, which has seen its cruise visitors increase from 500,000 to 1.3 million in the last two decades. These are five takeaways Powell and his colleagues shared from their work in Alaska’s capital:
First, the researchers found that impacts from cruise ships can’t be managed solely by regulations, but best practices can be established to address both resident and industry concerns. Juneau has had a Tourism Best Management Practices program since 1997. Its 2023 list of guidelines is 30 pages long and involves general principles for all sectors of Juneau’s tourism industry, including flightseeing tours, whale watching tours, shuttle operators and cruise lines. Cruise ships, for example, are asked to eliminate the offloading of bulky waste in the city’s landfill, and to minimize vessel announcements and other loud noises while in port. The program also has a hotline where residents can report bad behaviors, such as tourism operators flying helicopters over their houses or driving buses down residential streets.
Second, building green infrastructure could also help minimize the burden of cruises, the researchers said. Ports elsewhere in the world, including Alaska, provide electrical plug-in for docked cruise ships. Though getting those systems connected into the local grid is not easy, such infrastructure can reduce the environmental impact of the ships and provide new sales to the local utility.
Third, the researchers said it will be important for Nome residents to ensure that they benefit economically from the arrival of more cruise ships—and weigh these benefits against costs like environmental impacts. Generally, research shows that the benefits and costs of cruise ship tourism are not distributed evenly among stakeholders. Cruise ship operators, tour guides, local restaurants and shops may be among the primary beneficiaries. But other downtown residents may have to deal with congestion when passengers are in town without seeing any extra income. While the cruise industry creates some jobs for communities, these tend to be low-paying and seasonal. And while local artists can sell their products to the new visitors, cruise ship operators often try to control where their passengers spend money onshore to increase profits.
Fourth, an increase in cruise ship traffic could introduce more pollution and disturbances for environmental resources, which has implications for food security in the region. The researchers say more work is needed to determine how increased cruise ship traffic would affect access and availability of subsistence foods and wildlife. But the recent shutdown of cruise traffic during the COVID-19 pandemic gave researchers a rare opportunity to document how marine life behaved differently when fewer ships were present. One team found that the level of manmade sound in Glacier Bay dropped dramatically in 2020. With this new quiet, humpback whales could spread out, mothers could leave their calves while they swam out to feed and the creatures had more variety in their songs.
Fifth, a visitor code of conduct could also help produce more respectful encounters. Many cruise ship ports now ask tourists to read suggested behavior guidelines before arrival. Such codes remind tourists that they are visiting places where people live and work.
Those seeking more information about the project can contact Jim Powell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-209-5676.