Wind and rain greeted passengers of the Radiance of the Seas on May 8, 2024 in Haines. The ship has a capacity of more than 2,400 passengers. The Haines Borough and the Chilkoot Indian Association are in the early planning stages of developing a head tax with a carve out for a “cultural heritage preservation fee.” (Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News)

In late March, the Haines Borough Assembly voted to support charging a new head tax for cruise-ship passengers. In its current form, the new fee would fund port development and some other services – but one dollar would be earmarked as a “cultural heritage preservation fee.”

Haines tourism director Rebecca Hylton said the idea was born from a conversation between city leaders and the Chilkoot Indian Association. But, she also said the mechanics of the proposal need work and legal review. 

Chilkoot Indian Association Administrator Harriet Brouillette said they’re in the early planning stages but don’t have anything concrete to discuss yet. 

Kylie Ruwhiu-Karawana. (Courtesy photo/TRC Tourism)

Similar programs are already in place in other parts of the world where communities are balancing economic needs with social, cultural and environmental ones, said Kylie Ruwhiu-Karawana, managing director of TRC, a multinational consulting firm that helps communities develop sustainable tourism projects. Ruwhiu-Karawana is also Maori Ngā Puhi and operates tours in Dunedin, New Zealand. 

This conversation has been edited for grammar and clarity. 

What is your background with the cruise industry?

So I’m the managing director of TRC which is an international global tourism consultancy and we do a lot of work around Australia, New Zealand, South Pacific, UAE and branching out even further. And we have worked in the cruise sector to develop cruise strategies to review and look at community benefits that cruise ship visits provide to certain elements or to certain destinations and to help destinations make the most of cruise, socially, culturally, environmentally, economically. 

Wearing my other hat, my husband and I are the owners-operators of a Mãori tourism business here in Dunedin, New Zealand where we operate shore excursions and provide experiences to cruise ship passengers. Dunedin is the second largest cruise ship destination in New Zealand and we welcome somewhere around 130 ships a year. We take people out there to show them our beautiful city through our cultural eyes and give them a little bit of insight into what it is to be Mãori here. 

Is your experience being a Mãori person who offers an experience to people different than when you were providing it as part of that multinational corporation? 

The multinational corporation was not Indigenous in any way shape or form. And they were an organization that had nine values and lived none of them and that is not a healthy environment for anyone. It’s certainly not a healthy environment for someone of an Indigenous culture who lives and breathes their values which is what I do. 

So, when I deliver experiences to my guests I definitely share an insight into our world – and not everything. I have an iceberg theory, where everything about who I am being Mãori sits within an iceberg with a waterline. Because with icebergs – 90 percent of them are below the water – everything below the water is not shared. That is mine and mine alone and that is only for me to share with my children, my family and my tribe. What sits above that waterline, I’m happy to share. 

So when I do have visitors who may not necessarily see that line or are a little bit more curious about what it is around the nature of being cultural and being a cultural female, I will take it upon myself to ensure that I educate that person around what is appropriate and what is not. 

So there’s a whole pile of tools that you learn as someone who loves to share their culture because they find the gems and jewels, like when you get those people who click and they understand what you’re saying and they see the connection we have with our natural environments and they want to emulate what we have here when they go back home. 

My impression of TRC and one of the reasons that I reached out is that as an organization you’re helping people in other parts of the world who are trying to develop these kinds of programs to understand how to go about it, how to design culturally respectful tourism. I’m curious when someone gets a hold of you – what are the first questions that you ask them?

We ask them about what their motivating factor is for wanting to run a project. And, nine times out of ten it will be that they’re looking for something that’s going to provide an economic base for a community or for a business or for a tribe or whoever it might be and we delve down into the reasons why. 

We do a lot of engagement between agencies that don’t necessarily engage with purpose with communities whether they are Indigenous communities doesn’t matter. If you haven’t got a good platform or a good way to engage, you’re not going to get the outcomes that you want or the outcomes that your community deserves. 

So from TRC’s perspective, if we’re happy with where you’re trying to get to and we really want you to achieve those aspirations that you have for your project, we’ll help you put in the processes and the steps to achieve that with purposeful engagement, with collaborative thinking, with expertise across multiple different disciplines and aspects of our sector to provide you with the best opportunity to get to where you need to be. 

I do a lot of work with trails – Indigenous walking trails, cycle trails around the world on how to engage – so from an Indigenous perspective, how do I engage with other agencies? And from an agency perspective, how do I engage with Indigenous communities? And, creating those platforms and almost step by step guides on how you engage in a way that’s going to get you to an outcome that’s going to benefit both. 

There’s no point in, as an agency, going into an Indigenous community saying “this is the project that I have and here’s how you can participate” because that’s not purposeful engagement.

There’s no point in inviting someone to a movie and then sitting them down when the credits are rolling. They have to be there from the very beginning. And they have to know what their role is and what their purpose of being on that journey is. 

One thing that I’ve seen happen in Southeast Alaska time and time again is the state government or local government will come up with some idea and they’ll reach out to a tribal community at the last minute or they’ll want to share some kind of infrastructure project. It kind of happens both ways – institutions are not very good at communicating with each other meaningfully and because of their history things can break down really fast.

Yeah and I think, it’s not unusual, it’s not unique to Alaska. I think it’s all around the world. There’s lots of historical uncertainty and sometimes fear and that can come from both sides. 

I’ve worked with agencies in New Zealand who have said to me, I don’t know how to communicate with Māori Iwi [nation] in my area, I’m scared of screwing it up, I don’t know who to talk to and I’m really nervous that I’m not going to deliver on something that’s going to benefit them. 

Then you’ve got the Māori side – we’ve sat at the table, we’ve been ignored, we don’t feel like we’ve ever been involved in the process, we’ve just had tourism done to us and we’ve had this process done to us. And we actually want to have a seat around the table and have a say in our destiny.

And on either side, it can happen in both as you say, it’s about starting from the beginning. If you’re halfway through the project there’s always the ability to go back and take someone on the journey to get them to where you need them to be. So that everyone feels like they have the ability to engage and get input on the project. Even if you’re at the end of the process, you can always go back and say “This is where we started. What does this look like to you?” 

Take them on the journey. You might find you end up in the same place or it might be slightly altered but it’ll always be more beneficial, richer because you have had the ability to have those conversations. 

Engagement is about engaging early, purposeful engagement is about engaging with a purpose and everyone understanding what that purpose is. Coming in early, being purposeful in your intent – don’t muck people around.

And, have it at the same level. There’s no point in asking to speak to the chief of the tribe and you’re a junior research person. They have to be at the same decision-making level. If you want that person to give you a decision, send the CEO. If you just want to build a relationship slowly, then start a little bit further down the family tree. 

Haines has somewhere around 2,500 people and so whenever a cruise ship comes in – you’ve just doubled the population of the town and they’re here for eight hours. Managing that volume of people in a compressed time seems like it has unique challenges when you’re trying to design a program, especially one that acknowledges the cultural heritage of a place.

Volume can be a good thing or a bad thing. Value is always better – if you’re able to create values-based tourism, people who are wanting to engage are prepared to pay the premium to engage in the right way, with the right people in the right place. 

Cruise ships are seen more as a volume player just because they do bring, you know, I mean here in Dunedin we can have 10,000 cruise ship passengers and another 5,000 crew. We have a population of 130,000 so we’re not a small city. We’re not huge by any means but we do have a number of services that support that. One big cruise ship day puts everyone under strain. It puts services under strain, restaurants, shopping, roads even because buses are traveling back and forth. And then from a tourism perspective if you’ve got cruise ships on that day and you’re full, you can’t give that experience to that independent traveler who just happens to come through on that day when the cruise ship is in town. 

I think there is a balance and there is a need for destinations, especially for destinations as small as yours to think about capacity and to think about what maximum capacity looks like and understand the scenarios in terms of how you’re going to manage that many people in town. 

You don’t want to get to a point where everyone hates the cruise ships because they can’t get to the grocery store and they can’t get their kids to school. It affects their way of life. But you also understand you’ve got a real opportunity to make some money on that day because of the amount of people who are in town. So just, it’s a balance and communication. 

For the cruise industry, what kind of conversation are you having with them to help them understand that something like a cultural preservation head tax or an environmental head tax earlier is meeting their goals as well. 

What it boils down to is that the cruise ships make money from people who buy that cruise to go to that destination so there’s something about that destination that they want to see or engage in and most of the time with our destinations around the world it’s because they want to see landscapes that they don’t see every day, wildlife that they don’t see in their every day, cultures that they don’t engage with and a travel method that they’re comfortable with.

What the cruise sector needs, and what we talk about with them, is that it’s the experience and ensuring that people are getting that experience at a high level of delivery, in a good quality environment, with stories that bring that destination to life. And, it’s cultural experiences that bring those landscapes and those histories to life in a way that no other culture or destination or experience can do, even in a small town. The way that they can tell the stories, bring that history to life and engage people in a way that connects people and resonates with them in a way — they may want to make that drive through Canada the next time and not come on a cruise ship so they can spend a little bit more time in the region. 

So we have to invest, not just in the infrastructure of the cruise ships – cause that’s important obviously. But, we also have to invest in the experience that we deliver because that is the money that people are going to spend. That is why they’re going to choose that itinerary and your cruise experience or itinerary over another cruise ship.

If you’re working with the community to develop an experience that resonates, that is quality, that is strong, that people are putting a five-star rating on Tripadvisor because they’re really enjoying it and you invest in that experience, you’re investing in your itinerary. You’re investing in the longevity of your own cruise ship line because that is the reason why people will choose an Alaskan cruise over another destination, it is to come and engage with the wildlife, the landscapes – which are stunning – but also engage with the culture.

They have to be able to invest in what people are purchasing, it’s supply and demand as well as the infrastructure in terms of what they need to operate. 

So, if you’re monolithic in your structure and you’ve got fantastic infrastructure and no experiences – they’re going there and what are they going to do? You want to make it to where they want to go to those destinations and they’ll stay longer, therefore you can push your cruise ship itineraries out a day or two longer and create more opportunity for them to stay longer because they’ve got a longer cruise ship time.

So, there’s a whole pile of opportunities on both sides.   

Can you think of a place that’s doing this really well? 

This predominantly works more from an environmental perspective but in the South Pacific they have an environmental head tax for some of their islands. But again when you talk about the environment there’s also a cultural element to it because they’re not just Indigenous people – they’re the only people who live on that island. 

So when they engage with those cruise ships and those cruise ships are coming to them they have I think it’s a $2-3 U.S. dollar charge per passenger head who comes to the island — that money is invested in environmental programs but those environmental programs are run by the cultural people of the island. To ensure that they are giving back to what they treasure most which is their land. 

Every Indigenous culture that I know of has a strong connection back to the place that they call home. The land that has nurtured and supported and that they have benefitted from and they want to ensure that they’ve got the ability to transfer that asset, that beautiful asset, their ancestry, on to their children. 

So they’re going to invest in environmental preservation for sure. But it is a cultural preservation because what they’re trying to do is ensure that land is going to be there for their kids’ kids and their kid’s kid’s kids. So, if you’re investing in the environmental aspects like you do in the South Pacific, you’re actually investing in a  cultural preservation program. And it’s the connection of the land and the people that creates the experience that cruise ships can then sell. 

So if you’re wanting to support and ensure that you’ve got the ability to sell those itineraries and be competitive by supporting environmental head taxes or cultural preservation head taxes you’re doing that in a way that is providing an opportunity for you to deliver what you are promising to your clients. There’s nothing worse than a cruise ship passenger getting off of a cruise ship and going “this is not what I was promised. I was expecting to experience something, to see something. Where are the local people? I want to meet the local people, I want to hear about what’s happening here. What is this landscape?”

The ability for visitors to create a legacy with the destination that they’re traveling to — and this is huge around the world — they want to know they have given something back to the places that they’ve opted to choose to spend their time. 

And it’s not just financial. 

Years ago, it used to be “Oh, I’m paying you for something, a service, I’ll get what I want, I consider that value for my money and then I’ll leave.” But now over the last few years, with COVID and everything else this world has shown us that our time is just as precious as the dollars that we earn. So if I’m going to invest my time and my money coming to your destination, I would love to leave a piece of legacy behind so that I know I’ve done something nicer in this world, I’ve done something that’s going to make this world a nicer, better, kinder place to live. So if there’s the ability for the consumer on the ship to invest in the culture, to invest in the environment, to invest in the island or whatever it is that they’re going to that gives them a sense of legacy and a sense of almost comfort that they’ve given something back to a culture and a destination that they have come to experience. 

What are the components of a successful program? 

So in anything, when you’re trying to derive benefit or deliver experience … it has to be built on the four pillars: social, cultural, environmental, and economic. Because if you just focus on the economic and you haven’t got a social, cultural, environmental component to us your stool is going to tip over. There’s no balance, there’s no foundation to build success upon. If you’re monolithic in your thinking just about the environment then potentially you might say well we don’t want cruise ships because environmentally there’s no benefit for us. 

But then socially, culturally and economically, you’re going to tilt again because you haven’t got that firm foundation. 

But if you’ve got the opportunity to bolster and build  elements of what you’re trying to build with your foundation of that experience, socially, culturally, environmentally and economically, then you’ve got a structured basis. 

What we saw here in New Zealand was destinations that were economic in their focus and only really focusing on economics and charging big dollars because the international people were coming in tickety-boo – when COVID came they didn’t have an social, cultural, or environmental leg to stand on and I use that word pun intended. But because the social and cultural – especially domestically that got us to travel – we wanted to support socially and culturally because we knew if we were injecting our money into that community it was helping our people. It was helping our sectors. 

But because they were all economic in their focus they priced it out of the pockets of every day Kiwis, we couldn’t afford it. So they had to rebalance the way they thought of things and everyone had to do that. We had to think socially and culturally, how do we attract our domestic market now that the international market is gone. So without the strength on those stool legs, you haven’t got a stool; you’ve got a see-saw.