Alaska Tourist Spot to Vote on Banning Cruise Ships on Saturdays for Locals’ Break

Alaska Tourist Spot to Vote on Banning Cruise Ships on Saturdays for Locals’ Break

Each year, a surge of tourists arrives in Juneau, Alaska, on cruise ships to witness natural wonders like the rapidly receding Mendenhall Glacier. This influx has long been a point of contention among locals, and now, tensions are reaching a boiling point with a new voter initiative aimed at providing residents a break from the constant flow of visitors.

A measure that would ban cruise ships carrying 250 or more passengers from docking in Juneau on Saturdays has qualified for the October 1 municipal ballot. This sets the stage for a heated debate on how much tourism is too much for a city already grappling with the impacts of climate change. The measure also proposes a ban on cruise ships on July 4, a day when locals gather for a downtown parade.

The “ship-free Saturdays” initiative will go to voters unless the local Assembly enacts a similar measure by August 15, which seems unlikely. Juneau, accessible only by water or air, is home to the Mendenhall Glacier, a significant draw for cruise passengers who arrive on towering multi-story ships. Many of the city’s 32,000 residents are concerned about increased traffic, congested trails, and the frequent buzz of sightseeing helicopters ferrying visitors to the Mendenhall and other glaciers.

Deborah Craig, a long-time Juneau resident, supports the ship-free Saturdays initiative. Living across the channel from where the ships dock, she often hears their early-morning fog horns and broadcast announcements. Craig believes the overwhelming number of visitors diminishes what residents cherish about Juneau. “It’s about preserving the lifestyle that keeps us in Juneau, which is about clean air, clean water, pristine environment, and easy access to trails, water sports, and nature,” she said.

Craig emphasized that the initiative is not about being unwelcoming to tourists but about managing the volume. “It’s about too many in a short period of time overwhelming a small community,” she added. The current cruise season runs from early April to late October.

Opponents of the initiative argue that limiting dockings will harm local businesses that rely heavily on tourism and could lead to lawsuits. A similar voter-approved limit on cruise passenger numbers in Bar Harbor, Maine, another community with a significant tourism economy, was challenged in federal court.

Laura McDonnell, a business leader who owns Caribou Crossings, a gift shop in Juneau’s downtown tourist core, said she makes 98% of her annual revenue during the summer season. “Tourism is about all the local businesses that rely on cruise passengers and our place in the community,” said McDonnell, who is involved in Protect Juneau’s Future, a group opposing the initiative. She pointed out that some schools recently closed due to declining enrollment, and the regional economy faces challenges. “We are not in a position to be shrinking our economy,” she said.

The cruise industry accounted for $375 million in direct spending in Juneau in 2023, most of it from passenger spending, according to a report by McKinley Research Group LLC. After a two-year pandemic lull, cruise passenger numbers surged in Juneau, reaching a record of over 1.6 million in 2023. Under this year’s schedule, September 21 will be the first day since early May with no large ships in town.

The tourism debate is polarizing, and the city has been trying to find a middle ground, said Alexandra Pierce, Juneau’s visitor industry director. However, she noted that a regional solution is also necessary. If the Juneau initiative passes, it will impact other smaller communities in southeast Alaska because the ships, generally on trips originating in Seattle or Vancouver, Canada, will have to dock elsewhere if they can’t dock in Juneau on Saturdays.

Some residents in Sitka, south of Juneau, are in the early stages of trying to limit cruise visitation to their small island community, which is near a volcano. Juneau and major cruise lines, including Carnival Corp., Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Royal Caribbean Group, agreed to a limit of five large ships a day, which took effect this year. They recently signed a pact, set to take effect in 2026, seeking a daily limit of 16,000 cruise passengers Sundays through Fridays and 12,000 on Saturdays.

Pierce said the overall goal is to keep total cruise passenger visitation around 1.6 million and to even out daily numbers of visitors that can spike to about 18,000 on the busiest days. Peak days in the past have felt “a bit suffocating,” she said. Juneau has traditionally been the most popular cruise port in the state.

Several projects around Juneau are expected to help make existing cruise numbers feel less impactful. These include plans for a gondola at the city-owned ski area and increased visitor capacity at the Mendenhall Glacier recreation area, she said. Renée Limoge Reeve, vice president of government and community relations for the trade group Cruise Lines International Association Alaska, said the agreements signed with the city were the first of their kind in Alaska. The best strategy is “ongoing, direct dialogue with local communities” and working together in a way that also provides a predictable source of income for local businesses, she said.

Protect Juneau’s Future, led by local business leaders, said the success of the ballot measure would mean a loss of sales tax revenue and millions of dollars in direct spending by cruise passengers. The group was confident voters would reject the measure, its steering committee said in a statement.

Karla Hart, a sponsor of the initiative and frequent critic of the cruise industry, said the threat of litigation has kept communities from taking steps to limit cruise numbers in the past. She was encouraged by legal wins this year in the ongoing fight over the measure passed in Bar Harbor, a popular destination near Maine’s Acadia National Park. She believes the Juneau initiative will pass. “Every single person who is going to vote has a lived experience and knowledge of how the cruise industry impacts their lives,” she said.

Source: AP News

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