In May 1991, I wrote an Empire “My Turn” column bemoaning the fact that the tourist season was beginning and said, “The tourist season is here, and in the neighborhood I live in, the arrival of between one and seven ships a day from now until the end of the season means the end of life as we know it …”
I was frustrated by the increased traffic on Basin Road, and our neighborhood’s failed attempts to work with the City and Borough of Juneau to do something about it. I went on to say that in conversations with CBJ personnel, “We reiterated that in over 15 years of talking about increased traffic into the Basin, nothing has been done …” Looking back, it has now been over 40 years that our neighborhood has been hammered by cruise ship tourism. This year the numbers will dwarf what they were in 1991.
The main problem in 1991 was the Gold Creek Salmon Bake. After negotiating with the neighborhood for several years, the then new owner, Bob Dindinger of Alaska Travel Adventures, realized that any efforts to grow his business were not going to work because of the continuing outcry from the neighborhood. He wisely moved to Salmon Creek, and we experienced several years of decreased traffic. But as the years have gone by, traffic has steadily increased.
In 2019, vehicular traffic mushroomed because of the increased number of cruise passengers. A new tour operator, “Alaska Unplugged,” purveyors of self-guided Jeep tours, had Basin Road on its GPS system. In early spring, the tiny mining road was inundated with caravans of Jeeps, driven by tourists in a big hurry to see it all. An outcry against the Jeeps resulted in the company suggesting other tours to their customers, but they did not remove “Gold Creek” from their GPS system. Jeep traffic slowed, but by mid-summer the Jeeps were back, again speeding along the road. In addition to the Jeep tours, Alaska Travel Adventures has maintained a gold panning tour at the end of the main road, where busloads of tourists splash around for gold in our main watershed. Numerous taxis, private tour vehicles and locals also frequent the area.
So how do we deal with the issues that not only my neighborhood faces, but many Juneau residential areas? The best idea I’ve heard lately is Brien Daugherty’s suggestion that we zone for large-scale commercial tourism. The cruise industry is a multi-national, foreign-flagged industry that has a history of air and water pollution, and a miserable labor record; it extorts local businesses, and makes billions of dollars selling Alaska and other destinations. Brien’s idea makes sense. We need to zone as if we were dealing with any large-scale industry.
Zoning can protect our neighborhoods, certain trails and regulate aircraft flight patterns so locals can be free of the crush of cruise ship tourism. The industry has voluntarily agreed to prohibit guided tours in some local destinations (the 2019 Tourism Best Management Practices booklet lists Sandy Beach, Twin Lakes, Auke Rec and Cope Park). But rather than a voluntary program like TBMP, non-commercial tourism zones must be enacted in city code.
Other excellent suggestions have been made to the Visitor Industry Task Force (VITF), appointed by Mayor Beth Weldon last fall. With all due respect to the VITF members, I am concerned that nothing substantial will come of its work. Weldon saw fit to appoint only one member out of nine who has a history of activism against large-scale cruise ship tourism. That does not make for an honest effort to resolve our problems. I believe it will fall to the citizens to voice their concerns so we won’t have to take to the streets. Random acts of civil disobedience may be the only way to deal with the onslaught of large-scale cruise ship tourism. Stay tuned.
• Kimberly Metcalfe was born at St. Ann’s Hospital and was raised two blocks up the hill at the family home on Gold Street. Last summer the family celebrated 90 years at the same location.