Riding a swell

The ships are out and the numbers are in. During the 2015 cruise ship season, more than 977,000 passengers visited Juneau, an increase of roughly 2.3 percent from the previous season, according to city data.

Each year, City and Borough of Juneau Docks and Harbors records the total number of “paying passengers” that come through the city. This means that total only includes passengers of both small and large cruise ships who paid a commercial passenger vessel excise tax, more commonly known to Juneauites as a “head tax.” It doesn’t include cruise ship employees.

Including employees, the total number of cruise passengers who visited Juneau during the past few months was likely more than 1 million, which is good news for Juneau, CBJ Port Director Carl Uchytil said.

“More people means more spending, as a general rule,” he said. “And more is better, as far as the local economy goes.”

Better for at least two reasons: increased head tax revenue and increased spending.

Each cruise ship passenger pays about $43 dollars in head taxes. Most of that money goes to the state, but Juneau will ultimately receive $13 per passenger. And that adds up quickly. This year, for instance, the city will pull in more than $12.7 million in head tax money.

The McDowell Group released a study earlier this year titled “Economic Impact of Alaska’s Visitor Industry.” In the study, McDowell Group found that visitor spending in Southeast Alaska between Oct. 2013 and Sept. 2014 totaled $1.09 billion. The group also reported that “cruise ship passengers accounted for one half of the annual total” of visitors to the state during this period.

Cruise tourism plays heavily into the economy of Southeast and of Juneau, and those who know this best are the business owners who depend on it, such as Bob Janes, owner of Gastineau Guiding.

“We had a very good year this year,” Janes said. “Our best year ever, actually.”

And he attributes this, at least in part, to the swell in cruise ship passengers. Gastineau Guiding sells almost all of its tours through the cruise ships and receives “98 or 99 percent” of its business from cruise passengers, Janes said. “It’s virtually all of it.”

Though Gastineau Guiding has never had a “down year,” Janes said he and most, if not all, of the other tour-guide companies can tell when the number of cruise passengers dips — as it did around 2010 — and when it climbs, as it is currently.

“Everybody feels the difference when the numbers are down because that really is the bread and butter of tourism here in Juneau,” he said.

As in years past, July was the peak month of the season, which lasts from May through September. Nearly 241,000 passengers — about one quarter of all the passengers who came to Juneau this year — visited during July. The months with the lowest numbers of passengers, as usual, were May and September. This September, however, saw fewer passengers than last year, a decline of about 5 percent.

Several other groups, such as the Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska, track the number of cruise passengers each year. CLAA won’t release its findings for another week or two, however.

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