City and cruise lines agree to future limits on tourism as first ship of the season docks in Juneau

cruise ship passengers in Juneau
The Norwegian Bliss, a 4,000-passenger cruise ship out of Seattle, kicked off Juneau’s 2023 cruise season when it docked on April 17. (Photo by Anna Canny/KTOO)

On a misty Monday afternoon in Juneau, a small welcoming committee gathered at the Alaska Steam dock, in front of the towering Norwegian Bliss. The 4,000-passenger ship was the first of the 2023 season. 

A steady stream of people made their way up the ship’s ramp and onto shore, where they were greeted with applause, maps, tour advertisements and a smiling whale mascot ready for photo ops. 

“Welcome to Juneau everybody,” said longtime resident Tom Sullivan, who stood at the top of the ramp. “Have a great time. Glad you’re here.”

Not everyone is glad. Just before the Norwegian Bliss docked, major cruise lines finalized an agreement with the City and Borough of Juneau to observe a five-ship daily limit, starting in 2024. Some community members say that doesn’t go far enough. 

cruise ship protesters in Juneau
Sue Schrader and Pat White showed up with a small group of protesters as visitors arrived on the docks Monday. They’re calling for the city to impose stricter limits on visitor volume. (Anna Canny/KTOO)

Sue Schrader was among a small group of protesters at the dock. They stood with picket signs and one massive banner that was made to be visible from the cruise decks. It read, “Communities Against Cruise Pollution.”

“Cruising has consequences,” Schrader said. “We don’t like to annoy the passengers, but they need to know.”

The protesters worry that the five-ship limit is too little, too late. They feel Juneau’s visitor volume has grown too much already. And the 2023 season is expected to break records, with 30% more cruise passengers than in 2019. 

“There still seems to be unlimited growth,” Schrader said. “And we’re asking our elected officials or city leaders to get serious about the issue.”

Five ships is a busy day — but it’s possible that stopping at five is the most Juneau can do. The limit is the result of a long-negotiated agreement between the city and Cruise Lines International Association, a trade group that represents most of the world’s major cruise lines. It’s one of only a few such agreements worldwide.

The daily limit is not enforceable — it’s a good-faith agreement. And it doesn’t limit passenger numbers, as ship capacity is increasing across the industry. 

During the course of negotiations, some community members called for an even stricter cap on ships — between three and four ships per day. But Assembly member Maria Gladziszewski recently said the city “would be in litigation immediately” after such a move. In 2016, the cruise industry filed a lawsuit against the city for its use of marine passenger fees, and some city officials have raised concerns about further litigation. 

The agreement does represent the city taking a more active role in managing visitor numbers than ever before, which could give them more breathing room to establish new attractions and infrastructure for a growing number of visitors. 

“This agreement provides our community with the assurance we need to plan for the future,” city Tourism Manager Alexandra Pierce wrote in the press release. “It’s essential we preserve the things that make Juneau an incredible place to live and to visit.”

Juneau has long been divided on whether cruise ship tourism benefits or harms the community. Most people fall somewhere in between. But Sullivan, who came out to meet the Norwegian Bliss, said he was honored to welcome so many visitors to the place he’s called home for 40 years. 

“It’s a very important economic driver in our community,” he said. “But more importantly, I think it’s really special that a million and a half people want to come to the little town of 30,000 that I live in because of its beauty.”

In the season ahead, Tuesday’s visit will seem quiet by comparison. On some days, Juneau’s port will welcome as many as six ships.

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