Agreement to limit cruise passengers in Alaska’s capital criticized as insufficient

Passengers disembark from a cruise ship docked in downtown Juneau in June 2023. On peak days in the past, passenger numbers have totaled about two-thirds of the Alaska capital’s population of roughly 32,000 people. (Becky Bohrer/AP)

By Becky Bohrer · The Associated Press

Record of more than 1.6 million cruise ship passengers visited Juneau last year

A new agreement between Alaska’s capital city and major cruise lines seeks to cap the daily number of cruise ship passengers arriving in Juneau starting in 2026, though a prominent critic of the cruise industry said Tuesday the planned limits do not do enough.

The agreement, finalized late last week, seeks a daily limit of 16,000 cruise passengers Sundays through Fridays and 12,000 on Saturdays. However, officials said that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be that many people every day.

Cruise passengers numbers ramped up rapidly after two pandemic-stunted years, hitting a record of more than 1.6 million passengers in Juneau last year. That’s caused tension between businesses that rely on tourism and residents who are fed up with increased traffic, busy trails and the hum of helicopters ferrying visitors to glaciers.

Cruise seasons also have gotten longer, with the first boat this year arriving in Juneau in early April and the last set to arrive in late October. On peak days in the past, passenger numbers have totalled about two-thirds of Juneau’s population of roughly 32,000 people.

A daily limit of five large ships took effect with the current season, as part of a separate agreement signed last year.

A floatplane taxis near docked cruise ships in the Gastineau Channel, along the downtown waterfront in Juneau, last July. (Becky Bohrer/AP)

Alexandra Pierce, Juneau’s visitor industry director, said Tuesday that the aim with the current agreement is to hold cruise passenger numbers roughly steady, in the 1.6 million range.

“The idea is that the agreement buys everybody time not only to see if it is sustainable but also to build the infrastructure that will help it feel more sustainable,” she said.

Pierce said she expects a number of projects will be completed in the next five years “that will help our current numbers feel less impactful.” She cited plans for a gondola at the city-owned ski area, updates to the downtown sea walk and increased visitor capacity at the popular Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area.

The agreement, which was signed by the city manager and major cruise line executives, also calls for yearly meetings to “review lessons learned, to review and optimize the subsequent season’s operations, and align on community and industry parameters, goals, and opportunities.”

Pierce said city leaders are “trying to balance the needs of our residents, the needs of our economy, the needs of future opportunities for people to stay in our community.”

Tourists stop at booths along the sea walk in downtown Juneau, where they can book activities to do while they’re in town. (Becky Bohrer/AP)

Karla Hart, a longtime critic of the industry, is skeptical of the new agreement, saying it doesn’t do enough to address concerns many residents have that current tourism levels are unsustainable.

“It feels like we’re just getting led along again, and expansion will continue and more time will pass” and impacts will continue, she said.

Hart is helping push a proposed local ballot initiative that would institute “ship free Saturdays,” with no cruise ships with a capacity of at least 250 passengers allowed to stop in Juneau on Saturdays or on July 4. The signature-review process for the proposed measure is underway. If the measure is certified, it could appear on the October ballot.

Renee Limoge Reeve, vice president of government and community relations for Cruise Lines International Association Alaska, a trade group, said initiatives “remove the opportunity for collaboration and discussion, and I think that that leaves a lot to be desired.”

Cruise ships are shown near downtown Juneau on June 7, 2023. (Becky Bohrer/AP)

She said the agreements with Juneau are the first such agreements the industry has signed in Alaska and underscore the cruise lines’ commitment “to being good partners in the communities that we visit.” Juneau and other southeast Alaska communities are popular stops on cruises that leave from Seattle or Vancouver. The much-smaller community of Sitka also has been grappling with the debate over tourism numbers.

Reeve and Pierce also participated Tuesday in a Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce news conference to discuss the agreement.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Nunavut government wants to open a protected area in the High Arctic to tourism, CBC News

Iceland: Iceland moving ahead on better ways to manage tourism & safeguard protected areas, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Reindeer herding affected by increased tourism in Swedish mountains, Radio Sweden

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