Juneau’s 2023 cruise season will kick off next week when the Norwegian Bliss arrives on Monday.
Tourism nearly halted during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, and most of the ships that visited town last year were operating at limited capacity. That makes this year Juneau’s first full-scale cruise season since the pandemic began.
Alexandra Pierce, the city’s tourism manager, says it’s expected to be bigger than ever, with 30% more visitors than in 2019.
“We’ve never seen an increase like this before,” she said. “And I don’t think any of us who are close to the industry really know whether it’s going to just be completely crazy or whether it’ll be okay.”
Pierce says the city expects 1.67 million passengers. The increase mostly reflects growth of the cruise industry as a whole, she says — ships are getting larger and cruise schedules are getting more packed.
Elizabeth Arnett of Travel Juneau leads Tourism Best Management Practices, a city program that works to address tourism concerns for both residents and the local tour industry. She said the expected record season could bring welcome economic opportunities along with new concerns and complaints from residents.
“It’s so exciting to have a thriving tourism community again,” Arnett said. “But that’s not necessarily the case with people who aren’t involved in it.”
The challenge, for both city officials and tourism advocates, will be finding a volume of tourists that’s sustainable — for both residents and visitors. But Arnett says nobody knows where that number falls, and limiting tourism growth can be challenging.
“Where’s the stopping point? And how do you even make a stopping point?” Arnett said. “If we start trying to put our foot down with the cruise industry, you know, when do we, you know, step too hard and they just back away?”
The city Assembly has come up with at least one way to manage the ever-expanding industry — a five-ship daily limit, which passed earlier this winter.
That limit won’t take effect until 2024. In the meantime, tour managers, downtown businesses and city officials will have to figure out new ways to manage crowds and entertain visitors.
But Pierce says many of the most popular tourist attractions are already overwhelmed.
“We’re feeling like we’re kind of busting at the seams on whale watching right now. And it feels that way on helicopters,” Pierce said.
And the Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau’s most popular tourist attraction, has been struggling to manage growing crowds for years. The U.S. Forest Service has been working on a plan to upgrade visitor facilities at the glacier since 2019, but it will be several seasons before construction begins.
Arnett believes more visitors could present opportunities for businesses to expand or explore new kinds of tourism, but they may not be able to take on new visitors right away.
“We’ll be tested this summer for sure. We all pray that it comes down on the plus side,” Arnett said. “Because if visitors stop having a good experience here, the ships will take notice.”
Meanwhile, Pierce says the city hopes to use 2023 as a test run, to understand where crowds have become too much to handle and where new opportunities for high-volume tourist excursions exist.
“To look at the community and where we’re already seeing pain points,” she said. “And to kind of give our local businesses or local tour operators a sense of where and how they can grow.”
Pierce says part of her proposal for the use of marine passenger fees collected from cruise ship passengers will include more money for collecting data on those topics.
And as tourism ramps up for the summer, residents can submit complaints and concerns to the city’s tourism hotline.