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Fed up with hoards of cruise passengers, Alaska residents are calling for ‘ship-free Saturdays’

Cruise ships docked on 9 June 9 2023, in downtown Juneau, Alaska.
Cruise ships docked on 9 June 9 2023, in downtown Juneau, Alaska. Copyright AP Photo/Becky Bohrer, File
Copyright AP Photo/Becky Bohrer, File
By Becky Bohrer with AP
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A cruise ship cap is being introduced in Alaska’s capital to curb overtourism.

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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 on Tuesday the planned limits do not do enough.

The agreement, finalised 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 passenger 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 cruise ship sits docked near downtown Juneau, Alaska, Sunday, June 2017.
A cruise ship sits docked near downtown Juneau, Alaska, Sunday, June 2017. AP Photo/Becky Bohrer, File

Cruise passenger cap will 'buy time' to improve infrastructure

Alexandra Pierce, Juneau’s visitor industry director, said on 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 optimise 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.”

Passengers stream off the Norwegian Bliss after the vessel arrived in Juneau, Alaska, April 2022.
Passengers stream off the Norwegian Bliss after the vessel arrived in Juneau, Alaska, April 2022. AP Photo/Becky Bohrer, File

Critics say Alaska's cruise passenger cap doesn't go far enough

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 4 July. The signature-review process for the proposed measure is underway. If the measure is certified, it could appear on the October ballot.

Renée 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".

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 on Tuesday in a Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce news conference to discuss the agreement.

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