I work in tourism. For 25 summers, I have been on the docks from the first ship to the last ship. Most years are about the same, but 2017, our first million-cruise-ship-passenger year, was different. For the first time in all those years, tourism felt out of control. The docks and tour venues, which include downtown, Auke Bay and the glacier, among others, were often over-crowded.
I realized that a million visitors off ships would probably make a good upper limit, and that with better planning and more involvement from the city, Juneau might be able to sustain that number and still provide a top-quality experience to our quests. In 2018, we saw 1.2 million visitors. In 2019, just fewer than 1.3 million
These numbers proved to be too much for most venues and the quality experience that is Juneau suffered. With top-notch tour companies and great guides, Juneau still put on a good show, but the true Alaska experience was no longer what it should be. Logistics had become more important than the experience. 2020, the summer that wasn’t, would have brought over 1.4 million cruise ship visitors and some new and bigger ships.
This growing problem was recognized by many and the city assembly hosted some special meetings, the mayor established a task force, plans and ideas were discussed and shared, and a draft was published. Then COVID-19 hit, and all this work came to a halt.
Today, most tourism businesses are struggling. Some will not survive. Thousands of jobs have disappeared, and Juneau is suffering. People worry about the future. Fortunately, people want to visit Alaska, so the ships will return. Of course, the problems they create will return with them.
Some are circulating ballot measures to control the return of the ships. I think the current attempts would put unrealistic restrictions on the industry and are asking the wrong questions. It’s hard to see them passing. Others in the business stand ready to open wide the doors and let in as many ships and tourists as will fit but offer only the Mayor’s Draft Task Force report as a solution and that report, though it has many good ideas, only skirts around the problem of too many people.
I think both of these extremes are mistakes and that if people choose sides without a clear vision of our future, we risk creating a situation where it will be hard to meet in the middle. With the ships in hiatus Juneau has been given a rare second chance to get tourism right, to correct mistakes we have already made, and to avoid other mistakes going forward.
Tourism can be buses lined up 15 or 20 deep at the glacier waiting to unload, or groups standing in the rain at Auke Bay and seeing their whale watching boat doing circles in the harbor looking for a spot at the crowded dock. Tourism can be back-to-back hiking groups on the trails, downtown sidewalks packed to bursting and traffic so congested an ambulance or fire truck can’t get through. This is what happened 2018 and 2019.
Raw tourism is not a pretty sight. A quality visit to Juneau encompassing both tours and experiences should be our objective.
While working for Princess and then many years with Gastineau Guiding, we often talked about sharing the Alaska experience with our guests, not just giving them a tour. With visitor numbers climbing every year, many guests to Juneau aren’t getting the true Alaska experience.
The city government has glanced at the problems but the draft plan from the mayor’s task force talks of much that should have been done years ago and now languishes at the very time we should be making decisions and moving forward.
If the city would get a grip on the number of guests, per day, per week, per season and spread the ships out evenly throughout the week, we would be well on our way to developing a sustainable industry, a great place to visit, and not just be another stop on a ships schedule.
Cameron Byrnes is a 45-year resident of Juneau. Byrnes has worked in tourism as a tour guide and in other roles for 25 years for both Princess and Gastineau Guiding.