Sitka’s 13,000-visitor day was ‘far too many,’ mayor says

Sitka cruise ship passengers
Sitka’s Lincoln Street on June 21, 2023, when three cruise ships brought about 13,000 passengers and crew to the Southeast Alaska town. (Rich McClear/KCAW)

Sitka hosted more than 13,000 cruise-ship visitors in one day last week. That’s more than one and a half times the roughly 8,300 people who live in the community, based on the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Sitkans understood that there would be days like this: Visitors shoulder-to-shoulder along the roughly five blocks of Lincoln Street that were closed to vehicle traffic for the occasion, with about 9,700 passengers debarking from three cruise ships carrying a combined crew complement of about 3,500.

Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz owns a retail store in the heart of this area. At Tuesday’s Assembly meeting he wondered aloud whether June 21 was a bonanza, or a lesson in overcrowding.

“The day had slowed down a little bit, I took the liberty to walk up and down the street and talk to some of the vendors to see how that day went,” Eisenbeisz said. “Not everybody was available, a lot of people were still really busy. But the general consensus that I got was, if you had a storefront, you said it was too many people. If you had a food truck, or you were out on the street like that, you generally liked it, because you sold out early and you got to go home. So you know, the feeling even from the merchants who stand to profit from that was that 10,000 people in one day was far too many. And I say that not because it was one or two, but it was everybody.”

Sitka administrator John Leach said that he also had taken a walk downtown to visit with business owners, and subsequently communicated his concerns to Sitka’s representatives in the Cruise Line International Association.

Leach told the Assembly that it wasn’t just Sitka’s main street that was overcrowded.

“Trying to do work at City Hall, our bandwidth was gone,” Leach said. “And our computers slowed to a crawl and our phones weren’t working. So I know other communities have had these issues before. I know Juneau had these issues when they had their cruise boom. And I reminded some of the folks that I talked to in the cruise industry of some of the early discussions we had about overcommitment of Sitka’s resources. And where is that balance? And so we’re learning that right now.”

Off of Main Street, other organizations were also feeling the pinch. Staff at the Sitka Sound Science Center published a letter to the editor in the Daily Sitka Sentinel on June 23 announcing that they were reducing their hours and closing at 3 p.m.

Center director Lisa Busch says her organization values the interaction with visitors, and the opportunity to educate people about science, salmon, and the ocean.

“But we are just realizing what our carrying capacity is for that, for our staff and for our building,” Busch told KCAW in a phone interview. “We just can’t take all the people that want to come all at once.”

Busch says closing earlier will give her staff a chance to prepare for the next day, as well as fulfill other functions at the center, which in addition to its aquarium and salmon hatchery, is a year-round scientific research facility.

The high volume of cruise passengers in Sitka on June 21 was caused by the simultaneous visits of Princess Cruises’ Ruby Princess, with just over 3,000 passengers; Holland America Line’s Eurodam, with just over 2,000 passengers; and Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas, with 4,600 passengers.

Those same three ships are scheduled to simultaneously be in port again one more time this season, on July 19.

Robert Woolsey is the news director at KCAW in Sitka.

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