Juneau Considers Ban on Cruise Ships on Saturdays to Provide Locals a Break

Juneau, Alaska's capital, welcomes a surge of tourists each year arriving on cruise ships to marvel at attractions like the dwindling Mendenhall Glacier. However, the city's tourism boom has sparked ongoing tensions, now culminating in a new voter initiative aiming to offer residents relief from the influx.

A proposal to prohibit cruise ships with 250 or more passengers from docking in Juneau on Saturdays has qualified for the October 1 municipal ballot. This sets the stage for a debate on the appropriate level of tourism in a city grappling with the direct effects of climate change. The measure also includes a ban on ships on July 4, a day when locals gather for a downtown parade.

The "ship-free Saturdays" initiative, which recently qualified, will go to voters unless the local Assembly passes a similar measure by August 15, an unlikely scenario.

Juneau, accessible only by water or air, is home to the Mendenhall Glacier, a significant draw for the cruise passengers arriving on massive ships that loom over parts of the modest downtown skyline. Many of Juneau's 32,000 residents are concerned about increased traffic, congested trails, and the constant buzz of sightseeing helicopters transporting visitors to the Mendenhall and other glaciers.

Deborah Craig, a long-time Juneau resident, supports ship-free Saturdays. Living across the channel from where the ships dock, she often hears their early-morning fog horns and passenger announcements echoing across the water.

Craig feels 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. "It’s not about being unwelcoming to tourists; it’s about the sheer volume – too many in too short a time overwhelming a small community."

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

Opponents of the initiative argue that limiting dockings will harm local businesses heavily reliant on tourism and could lead to lawsuits. For instance, a voter-approved limit on cruise passenger numbers in Bar Harbor, Maine, faced a federal court challenge.

Laura McDonnell, a business owner in Juneau's downtown tourist core, makes 98% of her annual revenue during the summer season. She contends that tourism is vital for local businesses and the community. McDonnell, involved in the group Protect Juneau’s Future opposing the initiative, notes that the region's economy faces challenges, including declining school enrollments.

"I think as a community, we need to consider what’s at stake for our economy," she said. "We are not in a position to shrink our economy."

In 2023, the cruise industry accounted for $375 million in direct spending in Juneau, primarily from passenger expenditures, according to a report by McKinley Research Group LLC. Following a two-year pandemic lull, cruise passenger numbers in Juneau surged to a record over 1.6 million in 2023. This year's schedule indicates September 21 will be the first day since early May without large ships in town.

The tourism debate is polarizing, and the city seeks a middle ground, said Alexandra Pierce, Juneau's visitor industry director. However, she emphasized the need for a regional solution. If the Juneau initiative passes, it will affect other smaller communities in southeast Alaska, as the ships, generally departing from Seattle or Vancouver, Canada, will need alternative docking locations.

Residents in Sitka, south of Juneau, are also exploring ways to limit cruise visitation to their small island community near a volcano.

Juneau and major cruise lines, including Carnival Corp., Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Royal Caribbean Group, agreed to limit five large ships per day starting this year. A more recent pact, effective in 2026, aims to limit daily cruise passengers to 16,000 Sundays through Fridays and 12,000 on Saturdays.

Pierce stated that the goal is to maintain total cruise passenger visitation around 1.6 million, while evening out daily visitor numbers 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 mitigate the impact of existing cruise numbers, including plans for a gondola at the city-owned ski area and increased visitor capacity at the Mendenhall Glacier recreation area.

Renée Limoge Reeve, vice president of government and community relations for the trade group Cruise Lines International Association Alaska, highlighted that the agreements with the city were the first of their kind in Alaska. She emphasized the importance of ongoing dialogue with local communities to ensure a predictable income source for local businesses.

Protect Juneau's Future, led by local business leaders, warned that the ballot measure's success would result in a loss of sales tax revenue and millions in direct spending by cruise passengers. The group is confident voters will reject the measure.

Karla Hart, an initiative sponsor and frequent cruise industry critic, noted that the threat of litigation has previously deterred communities from limiting cruise numbers. She was encouraged by recent legal victories in Bar Harbor's ongoing measure fight.

Hart believes the Juneau initiative will pass. "Every single person who will vote has a lived experience and knowledge of how the cruise industry impacts their lives," she said.

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