Tourists visit Nugget Falls in Juneau, Alaska in September 2014. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

Tourists visit Nugget Falls in Juneau, Alaska in September 2014. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

How many tourists is too many?

Sustainability Session talks tourism limits for Juneau and industry improvements

With nine days to go until the first cruise ship kicks off a season expected to bring 1.3 million visitors to Juneau, some are wondering if the capital city has reached its carrying capacity.

The possibility of limiting the number of visitors to Juneau was one of the subjects broached during a nearly two-hour sustainability session organized by Juneau Commission On Sustainability Thursday night attended by a few dozen residents as well as leaders from the tourism industry.

“I’m going to raise the elephant in the room, I am wondering what the stance of all you gentleman and the people in the audience are on setting limits on the number of visitors?” asked Dennis Harris, who runs a small tour company and bed and breakfast. “I think we’ve already reached our capacity to offer our visitors a really wonderful, memorable experience. When are we going to set limits in this community on the number of people we have coming here in the summer?”

[More tourists are coming]

The people to whom Harris was speaking were a panel of John Binkley, Cruise Lines International Association Alaska President; Dan Blanchard, UnCruise Adventures CEO; Bob Janes, Gastineau Guiding owner; and Kirby Day, Tourism Best Management Practices Coordinator and Princess Cruises Director of Shore Operations.

They largely said a limits discussion was one worth having, but no specific numbers were mentioned.

“I think limitations are something that none of us really want to think about, but we need to be thinking about it,” Janes said. “I would be negligent if I didn’t tell you that I’d like to work with a group and at least address that and talk about —think about how we could do it, think about the feasibility of it.”

Binkley said a hypothetical limit is a question for the community, but if one were to be decided upon it would keep cruise ships away as desired.

John Binkley, Cruise Lines International Association Alaska President, discusses sustainability and tourism in Juneau during a sustainability session, Thursday April 18, 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

John Binkley, Cruise Lines International Association Alaska President, discusses sustainability and tourism in Juneau during a sustainability session, Thursday April 18, 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

“I don’t think we want to bring our people to a community that doesn’t want us,” he said. “If people don’t want you in the community, you can sense that, and visitors can sense that. If Juneau doesn’t want visitors from cruise ships in the community, they’re happy to respect that and look for other opportunities.”

Day said capacity is a subject people in the visitor industry should not be afraid to talk about.

“We’re at a point now where we should start talking about it,” Day said. “There were people, a number of folks in the community, in 1997 that said, ‘600,000, no more. We can’t handle any more.’ Well, through a whole lot of things we did, that the industry did, that the city did, we grew that ability to have that number of people in town where we’re now at 1.3 million, and it’s time to talk about it again.”

[Do you listen to any of Juneau’s podcasters?]

Tourism is also a major economic driver in the region, industry leaders said.

In 2017, visitors spent $705 million in Southeast Alaska, according to CLIA Alaska.

However, both Janes and Day said Juneau is still favorably ranked by visitors, and Day pointed out it’s a subject that’s come up before when there were far fewer visitors.

“Juneau is still rated as one of the most attractive and satisfying ports that we go to in the world,” Day said. “A lot of these people that come up in the summertime come from communities, large urban areas, where there’s a lot of people.”

Willing and sustainable

The panel of industry leaders also discussed some ongoing efforts to improve the sustainability of tourism.

That included efforts to make the industry more environmentally friendly and easier on the host community.

Binkley primarily focused on the environmental impact improvements expected in the cruise industry.

“We listened last year when there were a number of concerns that were expressed to us and local community leaders about emissions people saw in Juneau from many of the ships,” Binkley said.

[Study examines pollutants in Juneau’s air]

He said Tuesdays tended to draw the largest number of complaints because of what would happen when one ship waited for another to leave at the AJ Dock.

“That second ship that came in would come in early, and it would start to tender,” Binkley said. “That required all of their engines running. That produced a lot of visible emissions. This year, they will not be doing that. They will wait until the first ship leaves the AJ Dock.”

Additionally, he said preseason engine work will be heightened, and he supports local efforts to expand shore power offerings. Shore power allows ships that are docked to plug into a power source that allows to shut off the vessel’s engines and eliminate emissions.

“We also have an active group that we will meet weekly and discuss with the city manager and DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) to see how effective these operational changes are.”

[Ship exhaust generates flurry of complaints]

Day said Tourism Best Management Practices continues to offer guidance to those in the industry and tries to rectify problems brought to its attention.

He said the organization that started with about 20 guidelines in 1997 now has 98 guidelines relating to everything from where buses should drive to how whale watching vessels should operate.

Day said a key to making sure TBMP does what it’s supposed to do for locals is finding out when something goes awry or hearing when something works.

“Resident feedback through the hotline and the meetings is vital,” Day said. “People should not believe that we are not listening because we are.”

There will be a joint TBMP and Juneau Economic Development Council forum 5-6:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 23 at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall, 320 W. Willoughby Ave. to discuss impacts of increased tourism.

The tourism hotline is 586-6774.

Some non-Juneau efforts were also highlighted.

Binkley said more is being done to reduce the amount of garbage produced by cruise ships and water treatment on board ships means wastewater is at or near many cities’ drinking standards.

“I regularly will put that in a glass in drink it,” he said. “That’s the confidence I have in the quality of our wastewater.”

Globally, Binkley said $1 billion has been invested in exhaust gas cleaning systems to reduce the amount of sulfur ships emit and 34 percent of new builds rely on liquefied natural gas, or LNG.

The fuel emits less carbon when burned than coal or oil, but does raise concerns with come environmentalists because of methane leakage associated with the gas.

“When you look globally, it’s pretty exciting what’s happening in the new ship construction,” Binkley said.

• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.

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