Sitka-based tour company is asking visitors to consider the cost of their emissions

whales breach near a boat
An Allen Marine Tours whale watching boat witnesses humpback whales bubble net feeding. The tour company will collect carbon offset donations on their boat tours throughout Southeast Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Allen Marine Tours)

From shuttle buses to whale watching catamarans, tourism in Southeast Alaska largely runs on diesel. That means each tour releases greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. 

To counteract that, Sitka-based Allen Marine Tours launched a new program last month to pay for heat pumps in the communities where they operate. Electric heat pumps help homeowners swap fossil fuel for renewable energy. To spread heat pumps across the region, Allen Marine is collecting small donations from thousands of visitors that pass through Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan on their whale watching and glacier tours each year.

Allen Marine’s Director of Guest Experience Caitlyn Ellis says they hope the program will eventually generate thousands of dollars in donations. 

“That’s a lot of heat pumps. That is a big chunk of our community that could reassess how our buildings are heated in a sustainable and renewable way,” Ellis said. 

Allen Marine is one of the region’s largest tour companies, with hundreds of boat tours throughout Southeast Alaska each season. And they’re one of the first tour companies in the region to adopt a carbon offset program. 

Carbon offset is the idea that a person or company can make up for their CO2 emissions in one area by paying to reduce emissions elsewhere. In this case, heat pumps run on renewable hydroelectricity instead of heating oil. So installing them cuts down on the use of fossil fuel in local homes to make up for the fossil fuel burned by Allen Marine tours. 

Carbon offset programs put a price on carbon emissions. Though it isn’t an exact science, the goal is to figure out how much money is needed to eliminate a unit of CO2 from the atmosphere. For this program, that’s about $2 per visitor. 

“So, if every person donated $2, it would make up for the carbon footprint on board,” Ellis said. 

All visitor donations up to $25,000 will then be matched by Allen Marine. But despite the program’s lofty goals, it’s only raised about $3,000 since it launched last month. That’s because not every visitor makes a donation. 

The money is collected two ways. The first is an “opt-out” program. For independent travelers who book online, the donation is the default option at check-out. 

The second option happens on board. On every Allen Marine boat, there’s a kiosk with a local snack selection and complimentary coffee. There’s a small poster there that reads “Ready to reduce your carbon impact?”

“It’s kind of similar to a grocery store round up,” Ellis said. 

But instead of donating to a food pantry or an animal shelter, visitors donate to Renewable Juneau, a region-wide non-profit that has partnered with Allen Marine to install heat pumps for low-income families. 

In the short time that the program has been up and running, the opt-out approach is bringing in more money. But the vast majority of tourists don’t book independently. Instead, they book through cruise lines. That means much of the program’s success will rely on their on board advertising. 

And for Allen Marine, the new challenge is bringing up climate change and greenhouse emissions without negatively impacting guest experiences.

“We don’t want to overwhelm them with information while they’re having a great time,” Ellis said. 

For some tour guides, talking to guests about the price of fuel, rather than emissions, feels more effective.  

“We’re in communities where all of our fuel gets shipped in,” Ellis said. “And that is something that a guest can understand.”

Ellis said marketing for the program will be refined during recruitment and training for tour guides in future years. And Allen Marine hopes to pursue negotiations with cruise lines to expand their opt-out donation approach.

Though money is trickling in so far, Ellis said the company is confident that they’ll be able to front the cost of at least one heat pump – about $7,000 — this year.

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