Reducing the number of cruise ship visitors in future years was embraced by most Juneau Assembly members during a Committee of the Whole meeting Monday, where in a 6-3 informal vote they asked the city’s tourism director to come up with a strategy for 2026 and beyond that results in fewer than the record 1.66 million cruise visitors this year.
This year’s numbers were an abrupt increase coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, following 1.1 million people visiting last year in a partial recovery, Alexandra Pierce, the city’s tourism manager, told Assembly members. A limit of five cruise ships per day scheduled to take effect next year was based on a pre-pandemic projection of 1.3 million passengers, but she said the projection for 2024 and 2025 is for visitor numbers about the same as this year.
“(That) ended up being a really big jump and we received a lot of public comment,” she said. “We received a lot more (Tourism Best Management Practice Hotline) calls than we have in the past and we had a lot of input from the community asking what we’re doing about tourism volume.”
The hotline received 234 calls this year compared to 127 last year, according to a chart presented by Pierce. Notable increases included aircraft (57, up from 20), whale-watching vessels (29, up from 15), cruise emissions (15, up from 6) and “other” (40, up from 12).
“The ‘other’ category includes things like busyness, internet speed, and this year, concerns about raft tours operating on the Mendenhall River after the flood,” according to a memo by Pierce provided to Assembly members.
However, Pierce noted, peak days this year saw about 21,000 visitors, while a peak of about 17,000 daily visitors is projected in 2024.
Annual surveys of the community and passengers are still being compiled, with preliminary results showing visitors still have high opinions of Juneau as a cruise destination, Pierce said. But in her presentation to Assembly members on Monday, she said she wanted a clear indication about a strategy for 2026 and beyond.
“Do we want to work to grow visitation?” she asked. “Do we want to work to kind of maintain the status quo, recognizing that there are a number of infrastructure projects that we can do to help things seem less busy. There’s a lot of work that we’re doing right now to Eaglecrest, the glacier’s doing work that will likely lead to an increase in the number of glacier permits that will help kind of manage and balance volume, or did this summer feel like too much and we want to reduce the number of visitors?”
Some Assembly members asked about the impacts of the increasingly long tourism season, which this year started April 17 and ended Oct. 25. Pierce said that while the seasons have generally extended by a week on both ends in recent years, the number of visitors during those periods are likely in the tens and thousands and thus not significant in terms of overall impacts.
When asked about the likely number of cruise visitors if Juneau makes no policy changes, Pierce said the answer will depend somewhat on the number of cruise ship docks the city has. One notable such project is a proposed floating steel dock located along the Gastineau Channel off the intersection Whittier Street and Egan Drive — a short distance from the existing main dock — sought by Huna Totem Corp.
“I do think we would see growth coming through ship size or increased home port capacity if we do that,” she said. “Certainly an additional facility that could accommodate large ships would help to drive that.”
City and other officials have noted proviously that while limits on the number of vessels can be established and enforced, a limit on the number of people visiting is legally and logistically problematic.
Assembly members, instead of taking a formal vote, opted for an all-at-once thumbs up/down/sideways showing expressing preference on the strategy they preferred to see Pierce compile and present for future consideration.
Voting thumbs down — thus expressing a desire of reducing visitor numbers from this year’s peak — were Michelle Bonnet Hale, Paul Kelly, Ella Adkison, Alicia Hughes-Skandijs, Christine Woll and ‘Wáahlaal Gíidaak Barbara Blake. Voting for a “thumbs sideways” neutral approach were Mayor Beth Weldon, Greg Smith and Wade Bryson.
“A lot of people this year — people that I know personally, people that have never complained about tourism — complained about the impacts that tourism was having on their lives,” Hale said after the meeting. “So I think the real question is what works well for the community and what works well for the visitors as well. I’m not saying I want to go down a lot. I’m just saying I want to be able to know what we can do.”
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