31 August 2009

On Tourists and Juneau


A few Fridays ago, the Friday Photo Shoot-Out featured interesting and amusing signs in the area. Not finding enough amusing signs, I chose to show interesting signs--particularly those that showcase the growing debate in Juneau over whether or not local tours should be supported. It received quite the reaction in my comments that week, and I promised that I would write more about it at a later time.

Well, it's a later time.

Welcome to Juneau! The City and Borough of Juneau is an incredibly beautiful town of around 30,000 residents and is comprised of three main sections--Downtown (pictured above), the Valley, and Douglas Island (from whence the above photo was taken). There are, of course, smaller communities within those areas (usually named after creeks or geographic locations--Montana Creek, Lemon Creek, North Douglas, the Flats, etc) and there are outlying areas of town as well (the southernmost section affectionately referred to as "Out the Road" as it is literally out. the. road...about half an hour's worth of driving through nothingness to get there). But that's it. Literally....that's it. There are no roads leading into or out of Juneau--it is an entirely landlocked town. Well, landlocked may not be the best way to put it...we have an ice field on one side, unscalable mountains on another, and the Inside Passage of the Pacific Ocean on the rest.

For the sake of illustration, allow me a momentary digression--when I lived in Chicago, I loved going downtown. It was fun to ride the El down to the Loop, shop on Michigan Ave, maybe check out the bar on the top of the John Hancock building, and then go home. Once I passed Belmont Avenue, it was a generally tourist-free zone. Anyone up there knew the major directional difference between Clark Street and most of the rest of the streets downtown (major points to anyone who can tell me what it is in the comments!), and no one actually stopped walking when the pedestrian sign changed to the flashing red hand. I loved going downtown, I loved giving directions to lost tourists and telling them the best places to catch a show or go to dinner, but I also loved going back home and knowing that we all belonged exactly where we were. It was homey. It was comfortable. It was mine.

And sometimes it's really hard to get that feeling in Juneau.

People who live out further into the edges of Juneau can avoid all tourism pretty well. People who live downtown like me and like the homeowners in some of the photos a few weeks ago can't avoid it. On an average walk to the grocery store less than a quarter of a mile away from my home, I'll see three tour buses. I've never been on the public transit system without having the front aisle blocked by at least two tourist suitcases. Walking downtown in the afternoon is pointless if you're trying to get anywhere with any expediency, as the clogged sidewalks hold an eerie similarity to circa 1940's movies set in New York where the brown-clad masses suddenly erupt into synchronized dance. For that matter, driving downtown in the afternoon is a plain hazard, the narrow roadways bearing a striking resemblance to that antelope stampede in The Lion King when Simba's dad gets trampled. It's not just the downtown area that gets taken over every summer--driving the main roadway (it really can't even be called a highway) in the early afternoon guarantees at least one run-in behind a smoke-spewing Greyhound bus, and I've all but given up calling my parents on my lunch break at work in the Valley because there are so many sightseeing helicopters flying overhead that it sounds like a war zone; I'm tempted to end each phone call with "Gotta go, the Freedom Fighters are breaking through the line!!!" When I lived on Douglas Island last summer, I'd dread foggy mornings and the ensuing foghorns from each of the ships when they docked at five in the morning (although Kip's shouts of "WE HEAR YOU, WE KNOW YOU'RE HERE!!!" from the next room were always amusing).

"Well, why don't people just live outside of Downtown or Douglas or near the glacier?" you might ask.
"Excellent idea!" I would respond.
...Except it's not that easy--when you live in a town with no roads in or out, it's not like you can escape to the suburbs. And when the mountains behind you are that tall and that steep, there's only so high that houses can be built.

I might be wrong and, given, I've only been here a short time, but I think that's the main problem behind people objecting to local tours--they don't like being constantly surrounded by the tourism. We can shout all day about noise pollution and carbon footprints and clogged sidewalks, but I think people just get upset when they can't go above their version of Belmont Avenue and only encounter locals. For four or five months out of the year, Juneau isn't theirs like above Belmont was mine in Chicago--it's theirs...and whoever happens to be in on a ship that day's.

There have been great deals struck between the cruise lines and the local government--including a fantastic document called the Tourism Best Management Practices that outlines when and where buses, bike tours, and car tours can and can't go in the local neighborhoods. I think cooperation like that is fantastic and I'm pleased to see that it's happening. We all know that Juneau would be a ghost town if it weren't for the money brought in by tourism, and by and large, Juneauites just smile and say "I love it" when we're asked for the thousandth time what it's like to live in Alaska. It's the cost of living in a postcard, I suppose.

1 comment:

Pauline said...

I'm so glad I lingered on your blog to read that (I'll be back later for your shoot-out). To sail the Inland Passage has been on my "Bucket List" for about 20 years. After visiting Victoria BC a couple of times when my daughter lived there and exploring the island, I modified my dream to sailing on a working boat of some description because I dislike being caught in touristy crowds. And I really wouldn't like to think my presence was annoying anyone. Hmmm, now I can see I will have to think about it more!!