Juneau is bracing for its busiest cruise season ever

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)

Cruise ship season in Alaska kicked off April 17 when the Norwegian Bliss docked in Juneau. The state’s capital is also its busiest cruise port, and locals are bracing for 1.5 million tourists this summer. KTOO’s Anna Canny has been reporting on the lead up to cruise season, and says Juneau has never seen anything like this, especially recently.

Listen:

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Anna Canny: Basically, it’s going to be busier than ever. The last full crew season was 2019. And the pandemic grinded tourism to a halt. During 2020, there were about 40 visitors who came by boat. In 2021 there were 100,000 visitors, which seems like a lot, but that was still only 10% of what’s normal. So this brings us to this year, which will be by far the biggest cruise season that Juneau has ever seen. The city is expecting more than 30% more visitors, compared to those pre-pandemic years. And a lot of that growth is because, on average, ships across the industry are getting bigger and bigger every year. So that’s all adding up to this massive uptick in tourism numbers and this huge wave of visitors that we’re expecting to see this summer.

Michael Fanelli: So what are the city’s initial thoughts on how Juneau is going to handle these crowds?

AC: Yeah, so sort of the unsatisfying answer on that is that it’s really an unknown. When I spoke to the city’s tourism manager, she basically said, we’ll feel it out this summer and it could be completely crazy, or it could be fine. The thing is we’ve just never seen this many people before. And so a lot of the people who work close to the cruise industry are kind of going in blind. One of the things the city tourism manager said is that a lot of the popular attractions in Juneau are sort of already maxing out. And that’s a concern we were seeing even in 2019. So things like flightseeing, helicopter tours, whale watching and of course, trips to the Mendenhall Glacier – these are things that are still on the top of tourists’ bucket lists. So one thing the city hopes to do is a study to see where they could develop more of these shore excursions, and that’s basically these visitor activities like some of the ones I mentioned, that take people for outings outside of downtown, and that could alleviate some of the potential for overcrowding.

MF: So how many visitors is too many visitors?

AC: I think it kind of depends on who you ask. There are some people in town who already think we have too many visitors after the record breaking season in 2019. But the city’s perspective on that is really that we’ll figure it out this year. They’re trying to use 2023 in a lot of ways as a test run to see how many visitors the community can handle. 

MF: What can the city do to limit cruises if they decide there are too many visitors?

AC: Well, one of the things that the tourism taskforce recommended, was placing some sort of daily limit on the number of ships. And what they settled on was a five ship limit. Now, in Juneau there are basically five parking spots for ships, if you can call them that. So that’s the number that came up. The city, basically as the first cruise was docking, finalized the agreement with the cruise industry to put that five ship daily limit in effect, but that won’t start until next year. So what we’re looking at for this year is a few days where there are six ships. The big takeaway on the agreement is that it’s not really enforceable. It’s more like a promise from cruise lines. But on a broad scale, limiting the cruise business is really, really hard. There are port cities in Florida and Maine that are currently facing lawsuits after placing different kinds of restrictions on cruise ships there. And I think it’s really clear that the city of Juneau is worried about litigation and the potential for that, if they were to place stricter limits, so they opted to work with the industry to come to this agreement.

MF: How do Juneau residents feel about limiting cruise tourism?

AC: So opinions have always been mixed, but most people are in agreement about implementing some sort of limit. They did a tourism survey among the community in 2022, and 75% of respondents supported this five ship limit. Tourism managers in Juneau, that’s a huge industry, they’re definitely excited about visitor growth. The pandemic was a real economic struggle for a lot of business owners in town, so they’re looking forward to this year, most of the people that I spoke to. Cruise tourism is an important industry for Juneau and really no one, even the protesters, is expecting it to go away.

Michael Fanelli reported on economics and hosted the statewide morning news at Alaska Public Media. 

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