Last summer, my wife Beth and I visited a beautiful town on a Baltic island. When we got to our B&B, the owner warned us to close the gate or our yard would be trampled by tourists coming in to take photos of the flowers. It’s hard to believe someone would do that, but, sure enough, groups of tourists leaned right over the fence and would have come on in had we not heeded our host’s warning. I thought, “Wow! I’m glad that isn’t happening in Juneau!” Then, a few weeks ago, during a community meeting on tourism impacts, I listened as locals described their yards being invaded by tourists not just taking photos but actually picking flowers, wandering around inside private areas, and using family garbage containers.
Many residents feel Juneau cruise ship tourism has reached a tipping point. Last summer, our community welcomed 1.3 million passengers — a fivefold increase over 1990. With this exponential influx has come not only intrusions into our front yards, but daily downtown traffic congestion and continuing reports of environmental violations. Although not all of them resulted in penalties, state Department of Environment Conservation issued hundreds of citations for air and water pollution between 2001 and 2019 — that’s a lot of pollution.
How did we get here and are we doing enough to protect our town from tourism’s effects?
Beginning back in the 1980s, local citizens began showing up at City and Borough of Juneau Assembly meetings demanding our government work harder to mitigate tourism impacts. Between then and now, many local citizens have spent time on city-sponsored committees, tackling an array of industry-related issues. Past efforts worth noting include floatplane and flight-seeing noise studies (1980s), the work of the City Tourism Advisory Committee (1994-96) to route air traffic away from residential areas and adjusting hours of operation, the Waterfront Committee’s work, and various downtown traffic studies. In 1995, tourism planning was integrated into the Comprehensive Plan process and, two years later, the city endeavored to codify several conditional use land use permits, but, in the end, agreed to develop 18 “voluntary compliance” measures. This effort led, in 2001, to our Tourism Best Management Practices (TBMP), a regime of voluntary standards still in use today. The industry deserves credit for their effort to make the TBMPs work. In 1999, Juneau became the first Alaska community to impose a passenger fee “head tax,” which now puts several million dollars into our city’s coffers annually, albeit with stipulations on spending.
An updated evaluation of the benefits and costs of cruise ship tourism — one that places economic values squarely in a sustainability context of our community’s long-term environmental, social and cultural well-being — is woefully overdue. It is time to make conscious decisions on where we are headed and to take concrete steps to get us there. The city can begin by adopting the TBMP into ordinance by reference. In light of the recent abolishment of the Ocean Rangers Program, which verified cruise ship environmental compliance, we need to set up a system of independent verification for the best management practices and environmental impacts, using head tax money. Additionally, the city should enter into a Memorandum of Agreement with each of the major cruise lines, stipulating general operating procedures, such as hours of operation, docking practices and anti-pollution measures.
The city’s 2002 Resolution on Tourism Management Policies included “safety valves,” which have never been implemented. It may be time for Juneau to consider limiting the number of cruise ship passengers. The city could require large ships to dock, not anchor in the harbor, which would not only limit the number of ships that come into the channel on any given day but increase maritime safety.
Dec. 11 was the first meeting of Neighborhood Associations (NAs) to discuss tourism impacts. Over 60 people attended, including representatives from 16 of Juneau’s 26 NAs. Input gathered at that meeting will be forwarded to the Assembly and its recently created Visitor Industry Task Force for consideration. If you are concerned about cruise ship impacts, you will have an opportunity to listen or give testimony at the upcoming public meetings to be held at the Assembly Chambers on Jan. 11, at 10 a.m., and Jan. 16, at 5:30 p.m.
• Jim Powell, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the University of Alaska Southeast, where he teaches local government, environmental and sustainability courses and serves on the UAS Sustainability Committee. In addition, Dr. Powell was formerly the CBJ Deputy Mayor and three-term Assembly member (1995-2004). “Sustainable Alaska” is a monthly column, appearing on the first Friday of every month. It’s written by UAS Sustainability Committee members who want to promote sustainability. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Alaska Southeast.