Tourists wait at a Capital Transit bus stop about 1.5 miles from the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center on July 19, 2023. Large numbers of cruise ship visitors taking city buses to get near the glacier last year meant there often wasn’t space for local residents going to other locations. (Photo by Laurie Craig)

Tourists wait at a Capital Transit bus stop about 1.5 miles from the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center on July 19, 2023. Large numbers of cruise ship visitors taking city buses to get near the glacier last year meant there often wasn’t space for local residents going to other locations. (Photo by Laurie Craig)

First cruise ship of season expected to match last year’s record-high traffic arrives Tuesday

Officials say new five-ship daily limit will reduce passengers compared to busiest days last year.

This story has been corrected to state the city collected $18 million, not $80 million, in sales tax revenue from tourism in 2023, according to Tourism Manager Alexandra Pierce.

With another cruise ship season starting Tuesday that’s expected to match last year’s record passenger count, local leaders are pursuing a strategy that might be called Dock Lite: full-bodied rewards while feeling one-third less filling.

“We want to make a million and a half people feel like a million people for residents,” Alexandra Pierce, tourism manager for the City and Borough of Juneau, said Thursday. “That’s our goal.”

Pierce’s comments were made during a roundtable discussion hosted by the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce about the current and future seasons by five top officials at various entities with links to local cruise tourism. The new five-ship-a-day limit was discussed at length and industry officials discussed plans for future offerings — such as the gondola at Eaglecrest Ski Area — they hope will lessen impacts on residents by spreading out visitors over a larger area.

About 1.67 million people visited Juneau aboard cruise ships last year, and that total is expected to remain the same this year and next, Pierce said. However, she said the five-ship limit will reduce crowding on some days.

“We also will see slightly wider Tuesdays, which historically are really busy days — that often gets north of 20,000 people — and our busiest Tuesdays (this year) are in the neighborhood of 17,000 people,” she said. “So we’ve been able through that agreement to make our busy days feel a little bit less hectic.”

City and tourism industry leaders participate in a roundtable discussion about the upcoming cruise ship season, as well as the outlook for future years, during a Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Thursday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

City and tourism industry leaders participate in a roundtable discussion about the upcoming cruise ship season, as well as the outlook for future years, during a Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Thursday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Tuesdays will be the only day a ship is in town to start the season as the 1,094-foot-long Norwegian Bliss, with room for 5,700 passengers and crew, is scheduled in port from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. each week at the AJ Dock south of the main dock. No other larger cruise ships are scheduled until April 25 when the Norwegian Jewel arrives, followed the next day by two Carnival Cruises ships, and then daily arrivals by ships starting Sunday (except for Wednesday, May 1).

The next day without a cruise ship is Sept. 21 and the season will gradually wind down until the last ship, the Norwegian Jewel, is scheduled to depart at 10 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 24.

Pierce said surveys by the city show 64% of people respondents want to see cruise traffic levels remain the same or decrease slightly, which is consistent with the overall preference expressed by Juneau Assembly members. She said staff are working with various industry officials “on daily limits or combination of factors to help manage and balance volume over the future, so that we can allow our infrastructure to catch up and make Juneau feel like an even more successful destination.”

“Our transporters have been working hard on revamping their tours, and making sure that they’re managing and balancing permits over the season so that they’re able to take their guests at the end of the season still to the glacier,” she said. “And we’re adding capacity to Capital Transit so we don’t see the same problems with families getting left behind at Fred Meyer because the buses are full. Those are real impacts in the community. We take those very seriously. And we’re adapting and adjusting.”

A crowd of visitors explores the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center on Aug. 21, 2023. (Photo by Laurie Craig)

A crowd of visitors explores the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center on Aug. 21, 2023. (Photo by Laurie Craig)

The city is planning to provide additional “tripper” buses this summer between downtown and the stop that is closest to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, funded with marine passenger fees. A notice posted by Travel Juneau on its Facebook page March 28 emphasizes the commercial tour capacity limits at the Mendenhall Glacier and potential drawbacks of using Capital Transit buses as an alternative.

“Travel Juneau highly recommends visitors book their transportation or tours to the glacier well in advance of their arrival in Juneau, as it’s probable that day-of purchase will not be available,” the post states. “Right now, indications are that excursions and activities are up to 80% booked.”

City buses, according to Travel Juneau, are “designed for resident transport and (do) not go directly to the glacier. The nearest bus stop is approximately 1.5 miles one way from the MGVC and very limited opportunities for return taxi services from the area back downtown. Visitors using Capital Transit may experience long wait times between runs and should be aware that there are no services between the bus stop and the visitor center. They may encounter bears along the walking path, especially early in the morning or late evening. Visitors arriving via car rental, on foot, or without a tour operator must purchase an entrance pass at the visitor center.”

Other issues officials are focusing on include whale watching tours that have raised concerns about impacts on marine wildlife and shore power, Pierce said.

Frustration that residents misunderstand aspects and impacts of cruise tourism was expressed by Renee Reeve, vice president of government and community relations for the Cruise Line Industry Association, another of the panelists at the roundtable discussion. She said efforts to expand such research are occurring in communities stretching from Seattle to ports in Alaska.

“We got a lot of people who say frequently they live in a town where we visit and they say they don’t benefit from cruises,” she said. “I think that that’s patently false, but it’s going to be a lot easier for us to explain that when we have really good data and numbers to point to.”

Emissions from a cruise ship are seen from Sandy Beach on Aug. 27, 2023. A Cruise Line Industry Association official said the organization has set a net-zero carbon goal by 2050. (Photo by Laurie Craig)

Emissions from a cruise ship are seen from Sandy Beach on Aug. 27, 2023. A Cruise Line Industry Association official said the organization has set a net-zero carbon goal by 2050. (Photo by Laurie Craig)

Efforts to address adverse impacts such as emissions and other pollution are being made by the cruise industry, such as the CLIA setting a net-zero carbon goal by 2050, Reeve said. Also the industry’s agreement to comply with a five-ship limit is unique among global cruise destinations, and shows the willingness of operators to identify “what drives you nuts when you have a busy day” and address those concerns.

“The numbers being flat I think for the next couple of years is a great opportunity to bring shore excursion opportunities up to line with the number of people that we have allowed for businesses to grow or expand, and work with our partners here on some of the pain points,” she said.

The gondola at Eaglecrest, scheduled to begin summer operation in 2026, represents “an opportunity to spread people out to increase the amount of positive experiences that happen in general,” said Goldbelt Inc. President and CEO McHugh Pierre, who is also the board chair for Travel Juneau. Goldbelt agreed to provide a $10 million lump-sum payment to the city to cover most of the installation costs in exchange for a share of summer revenues over 25 years — or beyond, if necessary — until the corporation receives a minimum of $20 million.

While Goldbelt is investing heavily in tourism offerings, which include sightseeing vessels and other activities, it’s more than just an economic pursuit for the regional Alaska Native corporation, Pierre said.

“We’re really bullish on the tourism industry,” he said. “It allows us to keep culture as a career and it allows culture to flourish. And if we don’t do that then it’s really easy for culture to slip.”

A smaller-scale example of expansion for an activity that disperses tourists is Wings Airways’ facilities at Merchants Wharf, where retail and historic exhibit spaces have been added, said Holly Johnson, the company’s chief marketing officer. She said the company, like many, suffered greatly during the COVID-19 pandemic to the point of questioning if it could survive, but the revival since then shows why tourism is “one of the shining spots in our in our economy.”

“So kicking off this year we have a lot of gratitude, and are just really excited to get back out there and show people what we do, and get the summer started,” she said.

While the desire of many residents to limit the impacts of cruise tourism is understandable, there are ways to do so without hurting the industry’s economic contributions to the community, said Russell Dick, president and CEO of Huna Totem Corp. The company is hoping to build a new cruise ship dock in subport area several hundred yards from the main dock as part of a $150 million waterfront project that includes a culture center, retail space and underground parking.

“I don’t want to stand still because I think it has a significant impact on our region and the communities in which we live,” he said. “And I truly believe that. I grew up in Hoonah. I’ve seen what happens when timber goes away, fishing goes away. And it’s pretty devastating.”

A study by the city last year showed passengers spent an average of about $232 apiece, totaling $375 million in direct economic impacts and $480 million in indirect impacts, Pierce said. In addition, the city collected $18 million in sales taxes from cruise tourists.

“Of course, with numbers being about the same we expect similar impacts this year,” she said.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907)9 957-2306.

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