An Alaska tourist attraction will vote on whether to ban cruise ships on Saturday to give locals a break

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Every year, a throng of cruise ship tourists arrive in Alaska’s capital to see wonders like the rapidly shrinking Mendenhall Glacier. Now, long-simmering tensions over Juneau’s tourism boom are coming to a head because of a new voter initiative that aims to give residents a respite from the influx.

A measure that would ban cruise ships with 250 or more passengers from docking in Juneau on Saturdays qualified for the Oct. 1 municipal election, setting the stage for a debate over how much tourism is too much in a city feeling the effects of climate change firsthand. The measure would also ban ships on July 4, a day when locals flock to a downtown parade.

The ‘shipless Saturdays’ initiative, which was considered this week, will go to voters unless the local assembly passes a similar measure before August 15, which is considered unlikely.

Juneau, accessible only by water or air, is home to the Mendenhall Glacier, a major draw for cruise passengers arriving on multi-story ships that tower over parts of the modest downtown skyline. Many residents of this city of about 32,000 worry about increased traffic, overcrowded trails and the frequent hum of circling helicopters ferrying visitors to Mendenhall and other glaciers.

Deborah Craig, a Juneau resident for decades, supports Shipless Saturdays. Craig, who lives across the channel from where the ships dock, often hears their early-morning fog horns and public address announcements to passengers that can be heard across the water.

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

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

“There’s a perception that some people don’t welcome tourists, and that’s not the case at all,” Craig said. “It’s about volume. It’s about too much — too much in a short period of time, overwhelming a small community.”

The current cruise season runs from early April to late October.

Opponents of the initiative say limiting docking will hurt local businesses that rely heavily on tourism and could lead to 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, an entrepreneur and owner of Caribou Crossings, a gift shop in the tourist center of Juneau, says she makes 98% of her annual revenue in the summer.

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

She said that recently some schools have closed due to factors such as declining enrollment, while the regional economy is facing challenges.

“I think as a community we really need to look at what’s at stake for our economy,” she said. “We’re not in a position to let our economy shrink.”

According to a report prepared for the city by McKinley Research Group LLC, the cruise industry will account for $375 million in direct spending in Juneau in 2023, most of which will be attributable to passenger spending.

After a two-year pandemic lull, cruise passenger numbers in Juneau surged, topping 1.6 million in 2023. Under this year’s schedule, Sept. 21 will be the first day since early May that no large ships are in the city.

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

If the initiative passes in Juneau, it will have implications for other, smaller communities in southeast Alaska because the ships, which typically depart from Seattle or Vancouver, Canada, will have somewhere to go if they can’t dock in Juneau on Saturday, she said.

Some residents of Sitka, south of Juneau, are trying early to limit cruises to that 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 per day, which went into effect this year. They recently signed a pact, which will take effect in 2026, that aims for a daily limit of 16,000 cruise passengers Sunday through Friday and 12,000 on Saturdays.

Pierce said the overall goal is to keep the total number of cruise passengers around 1.6 million and to even out the number of daily visitors. On the busiest days, the number of visitors can swell to about 18,000 and it can feel “a little suffocating.” Juneau is traditionally the most popular cruise port in the state.

A number of projects around Juneau are expected to help make the current cruise numbers feel less impactful. They include plans for a gondola at the city’s 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 Cruise Lines International Association Alaska trade group, said the agreements signed with the city are the first of their kind in Alaska.

The best strategy is “an ongoing, direct dialogue with local communities” and working together in a way that also provides a predictable source of revenue for local businesses, she said.

Protect Juneau’s Future, led by local business leaders, said the ballot measure’s success 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, 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 lawsuits has deterred communities from taking steps to limit cruises in the past. She was encouraged by legal victories this year in the ongoing battle over the measure, which passed in Bar Harbor, a popular destination near Maine’s Acadia National Park.

She believes the Juneau Initiative will succeed.

“Every person who votes has their own experience and knowledge of the impact the cruise industry has on their lives,” she said.

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