I believe it is time for the people of Juneau and our elected Assembly to open a discussion about Juneau’s relationship with the cruise industry.
In 2017, Juneau had one million cruise ship visitors. The tour venues, which include downtown, Auke Bay and the Mendenhall Glacier, felt somewhat out of control at times. That was my 24th year working in tourism, and I thought that with a little more input from the city, we could handle a million people a year and still give all the guests a great experience.
Last summer we added another 200,000 people into this mix. It often felt as though we had stepped over the edge. It turns out that 1.2 million cruise ship guests were too many to provide them all with a true Alaska experience. There was less quality and more complaints.
This coming summer we are expecting to see more than 1.3 million passengers and there are bigger numbers predicted for the future.
Besides sheer numbers, the ships are getting bigger. As an example, the Norwegian Bliss has 4,000 guests. To move 4,000 people off a ship, organize them on the docks and send them off on organized tours or just to walk around town, takes more time than the ships plan for. The crowds on the docks lead to stress for both guests and tour operators. This is not a good way for our guests to begin their day in Juneau. This coming summer we have two more 4,000-plus passenger ships coming to town.
Part of the problem is inadequate local infrastructure. The staging areas and bus parking lots are too small. At times, these lots are so overwhelmed that tour vehicles have to circle downtown until parking spots open. The bus fleets themselves are growing steadily on streets that are already overcrowded.
We have world-class whale watching in Juneau. As tourist numbers increase so do the number of whale watching boats, giving even more people the opportunity to see a whale. In the last two years the number of different whales in the Juneau area has decreased. Is there a link between number of boats and number of whales? I don’t know. No one knows, but this should also be part of the discussion.
Sidewalks downtown are often packed, and the glacier can be so overrun that sometimes there are 10-15 motor coaches and other vehicles, waiting in line alongside the road to drop off and pick up passengers. Scheduling is also a problem. We have 6,000-passenger days and 14,000-passenger days. These fluctuations are difficult for tour and transportation companies. One day a company may need 75 staff working and the next day only 30.
When everything is crowded and chaotic, the guests feel it. Their sense of a great Alaska adventure suffers. As tourist numbers climb, these situations are shifting from the occasional occurrence to the norm. Are these the memories we want our visitors take home with them?
The current situation and the view of the future fills me with questions:
1. What do we want Juneau to be like in the future?
2. How many visitors, how many ships, is too many in a day, week, season?
3. At what point can the city say enough?
4. How can we make Juneau a better town for us and a better experience for the people coming to visit us every summer?
5. Can we expect or require that the big ships submit plans about how they are going to handle the large number of people they bring here?
6. Can we offer times and slots, like airports, to even out the week and make the experience better for everyone? Do we have the right to do this?
7. What are our rights as a city to control our own destiny?
I don’t know the answers, but I think it is past time to start asking questions.
Juneau is teetering on an edge. This isn’t about no more tourists and no more ships. This is about the quality of the experience we offer our visitors and the quality of life for those who live here. I call on our Assembly to take the lead and open a discussion about our future with the cruise industry.
• Cameron Byrnes has lived in Juneau for 40 years and worked in tourism for 25 years. My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.