Hundreds walk the waterfront near Elizabeth Peratrovich Plaza during the 2023 Juneau Maritime Festival in early May. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)

Hundreds walk the waterfront near Elizabeth Peratrovich Plaza during the 2023 Juneau Maritime Festival in early May. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)

Survey: Residents increasingly negative about cruise tourism, but positive opinions still prevail

48% of respondents say overall impacts positive, 22% negative after record-high passenger season.

This story has been updated with additional information.

More local residents think cruise ships have a negative impact overall on Juneau and fewer say there is a positive impact following a record number of passengers this season, although the positive responses still outnumber the negative ones by 48% to 22%, according to results of an annual survey presented to local leaders Saturday.

At the same time, 64% of the 517 local respondents said they favor keeping the number of cruise passengers about the same or slightly lower, said Alexandra Pierce, tourism manager for the City and Borough of Juneau, during the Juneau Assembly’s annual retreat, held this year at Juneau International Airport. That’s similar to what most Assembly members indicated in an informal vote during a Committee of the Whole meeting a month ago.

A portion of Saturday’s retreat was devoted to discussing tourism impacts and possible limits — either with mandates or through negotiated agreements with the cruise industry. Pearce said results from the community survey as well as other data collected from the past season offer useful insight into goals people affected by such tourism are hoping for.

“Interestingly this year, as you can see, positive is down, negative is up,” she said, Noting there was a 40% increase in cruise passengers compared to last year, she said “we expected this — this is actually better than I thought it was going to be.”

Alexandra Pierce, tourism manager for the City and Borough of Juneau, presents results of annual community and visitor surveys about cruise ship tourism to local leaders during the Assembly’s annual retreat Saturday at Juneau International Airport. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Alexandra Pierce, tourism manager for the City and Borough of Juneau, presents results of annual community and visitor surveys about cruise ship tourism to local leaders during the Assembly’s annual retreat Saturday at Juneau International Airport. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A total of 31% of respondents stated cruise tourism had positive impacts this year, with another 17% stating the impacts were mixed with more positive than negative impacts. Those totals were 35% and 20%, respectively in 2022 when there were about 1.2 million passengers.

The survey states 11% of respondents said cruise tourism had negative impacts this year, with another 11% saying the negatives outweighed the positives. The respective totals were 7% and 13% in 2022, and 8% and 10% in 2021.

Among other respondents this year, 11% said cruise tourism had no impacts at all, 14% said neutral/neither, and 4% said they didn’t know. The neutral/neither responses were 9% higher than in 2021 and 2022.

When asked about CBJ’s management of tourism, 56% of this year’s respondents said not enough is being done, 33% said just the right amount, 4% said more than enough and 7% said they didn’t know. The “not enough” responses were 11% higher than 2021 and 2022, while “just the right amount” was 8% lower than last year.

Finally, 33% of respondents said they wanted to number of cruise passengers to remain the same, 11% stated they wanted higher numbers and 50% said they wanted lower numbers (with 31% favoring slightly lower and 19% much lower).

“So people are like ‘oh, gosh, I think I still recognize that it’s a good thing, but oh the summer was busy,’” Pierce said. “That’s kind of how I read this data. And then, as per usual, ‘CBJ is not doing enough to manage tourism.’”

Pierce said she disagrees with that latter opinion, noting city officials have negotiated agreements with the cruise industry such as the five-ship-per-day limit that takes effect next year and a 2019 settlement in a lawsuit about how the city spends per-passenger fees.

Also, she said, the issues involved aren’t simply about the number of cruise ship passengers arriving each year.

“We talk a lot about seasonal numbers like 1.6 million or 1.3 million, but when people are concerned about their experience as it relates to the visitor industry they’re concerned about the daily impacts,” she said. “What they see day in and day out, where and when they feel overwhelmed.”

One result that was unequivocal was a separate annual survey of cruise ship visitors, Pierce said.

“In the passenger survey 98% of people are satisfied with their Juneau experience, with 70% of those people very satisfied,” she said. “People love Juneau, we remain a marquee destination. And the average total spent was $232 per person, which is up — and adjusted for inflation it’s still an increase.”

Heather Haugland, a senior consultant for the McKinley Research Group, stated subsequently the spending comparison is to the last time passenger spending was measured in 2016.

Alexandra Pierce, tourism manager for the City and Borough of Juneau, takes a photo of a list of possible actions to address cruise ship impacts after Assembly members offer their opinions during a retreat Saturday at Juneau International Airport. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Alexandra Pierce, tourism manager for the City and Borough of Juneau, takes a photo of a list of possible actions to address cruise ship impacts after Assembly members offer their opinions during a retreat Saturday at Juneau International Airport. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Putting a limit on the number of cruise passengers — not just ships — has been discussed repeatedly by the Assembly, although City Attorney Robert Palmer and other experts have stated such limits are almost certainly an unconstitutional restriction on interstate travel. Pierce, noting Sitka twice had ballot initiatives seeking limits declared illegal, said it’s another instance where a voluntary agreement with the industry may be the best solution.

“I think if we do some sort of negotiated limit for 2026 and beyond we can continue to refine it as we build infrastructure or as conditions change,” she said.

Palmer, who drafted a list of five possible policies in 2020 when the same issue came up, said Saturday those options remain valid today. In addition to a voluntary agreement, they included:

• Gaining full control of the four existing cruise ship docks by purchasing the two — the Franklin and AJ docks — the city currently doesn’t own. Making such a purchase by 2028 was among the potential uses for per-passenger fees in a list presented to the Assembly earlier this year.

• Collecting data about impacts to provide a “governmental interests” justification for imposing passenger or capacity limits as a defense against the constitutional arguments.

• An “infrastructure and geographical limitations” option that states “the size of ships, the location of docks, and the geographical features of Gastineau Channel can indirectly limit cruise ship tourism.”

• As a more obscure option, CBJ could prepay $12.8 million on specific revenue bonds “which would give the CBJ more discretion regarding how the CBJ docks are used,” according to Palmer’s 2020 analysis.

A majority of Assembly members, in discussing various conceptual options, expressed support for daily and/or seasonal passenger limits, no-ship days (or days with perhaps one ship), and limits on cruise ship size. Pierce and other city staff were asked to work on specific proposals that will allow formal consideration of such measures.

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

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