Alaska tourism center will vote on whether to ban cruise ships on Saturday to give locals a break

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) – Every year, hordes of tourists arrive in Alaska’s capital on cruise ships to see wonders like the rapidly receding Mendenhall Glacier. Now, long-simmering tensions over Juneau’s tourism boom are coming to the forefront of a new voter initiative aimed at relieving residents from the influx.

A measure that would have banned cruise ships with 250 or more passengers from docking in Juneau on Saturday qualified for the Oct. 1 municipal ballot, setting the stage for a debate about how much tourism is too much in a struggling city. right away. impacts of climate change. The measure would also ban ships on July 4, a day when locals go to a parade downtown.

The “Ship-free Saturday” initiative that qualified this week will go to the voters if the local Assembly does not enact a similar measure by August 15, which is unlikely.

Juneau is home to the Mendenhall Glacier, accessible only by water or air, a major draw for cruise passengers on multi-story ships that pass over parts of the city’s modest skyline. Many residents of this city of about 32,000 are worried about the increase in traffic, congested trails and the frequent sighting of helicopters transporting visitors to Menden Hall and other glaciers.

Deborah Craig, who has lived in Juneau for many years, supports Ship Free Saturdays. Craig, who lives across the channel from where the ships dock, often hears their early morning fog horns and broadcast announcements made to passengers that can be heard across the water.

The current “overwhelming” number of visitors diminishes what residents love about Juneau, she said.

“It’s about preserving the lifestyle that we maintain in Juneau, which is clean air, clean water, a clean environment and easy access to trails, easy access to water sports and nature,” she said of the initiative.

“There is this perception that some people are not welcoming to tourists, and that is not the case at all,” said Craig.

The current cruise season runs from the beginning of April to the end of October.

Proponents of the initiative say limiting the docks will hurt local businesses that rely heavily on tourism and could invite lawsuits. A voter-approved limit on the number of cruise passengers 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 the tourist heart of downtown Juneau, said she makes 98% of her annual revenue during the summer season.

Tourism is about “all the local businesses that depend on cruise passengers and our place in the community,” said McDonnell, who is involved with Protect Juneau’s Future, which opposes the initiative.

Several schools have recently closed due to factors including declining enrollment, and the regional economy is facing challenges, she said.

“I think we as a community need to look at what’s at stake for our economy,” she said.

The cruise industry accounted for $375 million in direct spending in Juneau in 2023, most of that attributable to spending by passengers, according to a report prepared for the city by McKinley Research Group LLC.

After a two-year pandemic lull, the number of cruise passengers rose sharply in Juneau, hitting more than 1.6 million in 2023. Under this year’s schedule, September 21 will be the first day since early May with no ships big at home.

The tourism debate is polarizing, and the city is trying to find a middle ground, said Alexandra Pierce, Juneau’s director of visitor industry. But she noted that a regional solution is also needed.

If the Juneau initiative is successful, it will affect other, smaller communities in southeast Alaska because the ships, generally on trips from Seattle or Vancouver, Canada, will have to go somewhere if they can’t dock in Juneau on Saturday, said she

Some residents of Sitka, south of Juneau, are in the early stages of trying to limit cruise visits to the small island community, which is located 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 per day, which took effect this year. They recently signed an agreement, due to come into force in 2026, calling for a daily limit of 16,000 cruise passengers from Sunday to Friday and 12,000 on Saturdays.

Pierce said the overall goal is to keep total cruise passenger visitation around 1.6 million, and balance out the daily visitor numbers that can rise to about 18,000 on the busiest days and feel “a little sloppy. ” Juneau has traditionally been the most popular cruise. port in the state.

A number of projects around Juneau are expected to help make current visitation numbers feel less impactful. Those 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 Alaska Cruise Lines International Association trade group, said the agreements signed with the city were the first of their kind in Alaska.

The best strategy is “continuous direct dialogue with local communities” and working together in a way that 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 the loss of sales tax revenue and millions of dollars in direct spending by cruise passengers. The group was confident voters would reject the measure, the steering committee said in a statement.

Karla Hart, a sponsor of the initiative and a frequent critic of the cruise industry, said the threat of litigation has kept communities from taking steps to limit the number of cruises in the past. She was pleased with the legal victories 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 succeed.

“Everyone who will be voting has lived experience and knowledge of how the cruise industry affects their lives,” she said.

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