A bird flies along the waterfront downtown as cruise ship passengers enjoy the sun Thursday evening. Mid-season data on this year’s cruise ship tourism season in Juneau shows a steady number of calls and complaints to the city’s tourism hotline compared to the previous season despite the record breaking number of passengers visiting the city. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

A bird flies along the waterfront downtown as cruise ship passengers enjoy the sun Thursday evening. Mid-season data on this year’s cruise ship tourism season in Juneau shows a steady number of calls and complaints to the city’s tourism hotline compared to the previous season despite the record breaking number of passengers visiting the city. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Tourism complaints in Juneau remain steady compared to previous season

Top complaints about vehicles, whale-watching vessels and aircrafts.

Mid-season data on this year’s cruise ship tourism season in Juneau shows the number of calls and complaints to the city’s tourism hotline have remained steady compared to the previous season despite an “unprecedented” spike in the number of passengers visiting the city.

According to Juneau’s Tourism Best Management Practice Hotline, the number of calls received this season has been 67, one less call compared to last year despite the number of passengers in Juneau reaching new heights this summer with 627,220 visitors so far, according to recently shared city data.

“That balance makes sense to me,” said City and Borough of Juneau Tourism Manager Alex Pierce. “I think this year is busier than last year, but last year was our first year back after the pandemic.”

Of the calls received this year, the most specific complaints have been about vehicles (24 calls), followed by whale-watching vessels (10) and aircrafts (8).

The most recent complaint filed by the TBMP was sent in on July 5 by an unnamed resident who wrote “More and more ships are forgetting to turn off their loudspeakers while in port. Could they please be reminded that they are surrounded by residential areas and their announcements are magnified by the water and mountains?”

In April, the city reported that Juneau welcomed about 223% more cruise ship passengers compared to the same period in 2022, and that increase only continued as the city saw a 61% increase in May and a 46% increase in June. For perspective, those numbers indicate large ships in Juneau have been coming into the city at 99% of their official capacity — even topping that at certain times.

City officials anticipated high levels of passengers were going to be on the way to Juneau this summer when making predictions ahead of the season. The predictions indicated a record-breaking 1.67 million visitors, which would top 2019’s passenger count by 30% and the following three years where cruise ship traffic was reduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That tracks with the number of calls reported in 2019, which came in 25 less than this year’s reported calls and similar to 2022.

The calls and complaints voiced are not a direct mirror of the community’s sentiment on tourism issues as a whole, Pierce explained, but she said the data is important when it comes to giving the city an idea of what particular impacts of the industry are being experienced beyond an individual experience.

“The calls usually come from people who live or spend time in areas that are particularly impacted by the industry, for example, people who live under helicopter flight paths, or people who spend a lot of time out on the water,” she said. “So we’re getting a reflection of that, but at the same time we do random sample resident surveys to try to get a perspective from the broader community.”

U.S. Forest Service data shows that in 2022 there were 12,049 glacier helicopter landings, which ​​equates to the number of helicopter flights. That number is relatively typical, as the number of flights has fluctuated between about 12,000 to 17,000 since 2001 (the industry operates under USFS permit limitations established that year). 2023 data is not yet available.

In a concern reported by TBMP on June 1, an unnamed resident wrote “I live at Amalga Harbor. The helicopter noise these past couple of weeks have been horrendous. It is extremely disruptive… You can’t talk without speaking very loudly or sometimes shouting. This is only June 1st. This cannot go on all summer.”

Pierce said beyond the calls being sent to the TBMP hotline, she personally has also received complaints about ship emissions, especially regarding older Norwegian Cruise Line ships.

“Older Norwegian Cruise Line ships are just smoky ships — ship technology has progressed a lot and they’re just built in a different time — so they produce visible emissions,” she said, noting it is her understanding that despite the visible emissions the ships still do abide with the “cleaner fuel” regulations in Juneau.

“We get a lot of complaints about those ships and we’ve been working with NCL on the issue there,” she said. “We’re trying to address the visible emissions issue because it upsets people to see a cruise ship smoking away in the harbor and that’s really understandable.”

Whale watching has been an increasingly hot topic on social media across Juneau-based platforms, which Pierce said is being addressed by the city and local operators via a recently formed committee that is beginning discussions to address industry issues and concerns this week. Complaints sent to the TBMP also confirm the social media concerns.

“They go right beside yachts that are anchored out here in the bay that have lightering boats off to the sides of them, with no concern or consideration for wake,” wrote an unnamed resident on June 6 about a whale watching vessel operating out in the Auke Bay area. “We have a private dock with boats tied to it and there is a good share of the time we cannot even use our own dock because of their wake, and they are responsible for it.”

Pierce said she encourages residents to express any feedback they’d like to share about the season to the hotline.

“We recognize that it’s a really busy year and we’re feeling the impacts throughout the community, and we encourage people to call TBMP and use the hotline if they have issues or complaints,” she said. “That’s the easiest way to get the industry to respond to their concerns and try to improve things for the community as a whole.”

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651)-528-1807.

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