Rod Pfleiger of the Alaska Cruise Association, left, and Ralph Samuels of Holland America, right, present a custom hunting knife to Don Habeger for his years of valuable contributions to the visitor industry. Don is the former vice president of government relations for Royal Caribbean Cruises.
For most people, a job’s a job – a nine-to-five gig that produces a paycheck every two weeks. For others it’s a rewarding, lifetime endeavor that enables them to give back to the industries, communities and individuals that have given them so much. Don Habeger is one of the lucky, hard-working few that belongs to the latter category.
Don has worked in the Alaska tourism industry for a quarter of a century. Originally from Minnesota, Don moved to Juneau in 1979 and worked a series of jobs ranging from teacher to construction worker before joining a private tourism company in 1985. He started as a ship agent and ended up as port director for the Port of Juneau before joining Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines in 2002.
“By 1985, Alaska’s economy was not doing well,” Don said. “The construction industry had fallen flat on its face; people were literally walking away from their houses. It was a very difficult time. Luckily I was able to step off into tourism, which has sustained my family and me and put bread on the table for the past 25 years.”
Don joined Royal Caribbean as the director of government and community relations and finished as vice president of government relations, which entailed representing the company for all government relations activities in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii and Canada. Unfortunately, Don recently found himself a victim of corporate downsizing – his position at Royal Caribbean was eliminated earlier this year.
Traditionally the state’s second-largest employer, tourism is taking a hit from both domestic and international markets. The seasonal cruise industry, which contributes $1.35 billion to the Alaska economy each year and supports 14,500 state jobs, will experience a 14 percent reduction in vessels in 2010. The state is expected to lose $165 million as a result.
While tough economic times are forcing people to scale back on luxury items like travel, “Alaska has exacerbated this problem with the cruise ship passenger tax,” Don said. “With the economy in the state it’s currently in, we’re just compounding the situation. I think it’s very unfortunate Alaska has done that to itself.”
Don said the problem with the ballot measure was fundamental, but the current economic crisis has brought it to light for the cruise industry. To compensate for the head tax, the industry would need to charge more for its product and is unable to do so because individuals simply have less money to spend.
Don said he’s confident Alaskans will “wake up and smell the coffee,” but it may take time.
“To some degree or another, all Alaskans are affected by tourism,” he said. “When tourism-generated dollars aren’t lining pockets like they used to people will wake up and say, ‘Hey, this does have an impact.’ But I don’t think they understand it yet.”
Rod Pfleiger, membership and community relations manager for the Alaska Cruise Association, said Don’s contributions over the past 25 years have been significant. “He’s served on many boards and committees related to tourism, both in Juneau and statewide – the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, Alaska Cruise Association, Alaska Travel Industry Association. He really has his finger on the pulse of this industry. His contributions will be missed.”
Bob Stone, senior vice president of tour operations for Royal Celebrity Tours, echoed Pfleiger’s sentiments. “Don served as regional vice president of government relations for Royal Caribbean the past six years, and his innumerable contributions have proven to be of the utmost value in Alaska, Canada, the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii,” he said. “Don has been a key contributor to many of this company’s most important achievements and has laid the foundation for the future success of RCCL through his tireless and varied efforts.”
Don has two sons aged 25 and 17. The oldest left the state to attend film school and now lives in Juneau. The younger of the two is a high-school junior. When asked whether he expects his sons to make Alaska their long-term home, Don is contemplative.
“There are opportunities here, but I question whether Alaska is part of my future,” he said. “I would expect my children to look at all their pathways. Whether or not that includes Alaska remains to be seen.”