Juneau leaders consider whether – and how – to limit cruise ship visitors

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Juneau City Manager Katie Koester writes a list of ways the city could limit cruise ship tourism at a Juneau Assembly retreat on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023. (Clarise Larson/KTOO)

record number of cruise ship passengers visited Juneau this year. Now, city leaders are considering whether — and how — to set a future limit.

At a Juneau Assembly retreat on Saturday, Juneau Tourism Manager Alexandra Pierce said this season’s busiest days made the strongest impression on locals.

“When people are concerned about their experience as it relates to the visitor industry, they’re concerned about the daily impacts – what they see day in, day out,” she said.

Pierce shared initial results from a resident survey the city conducts each year. This time, 56% said the city isn’t doing enough to manage tourism — up from 45% last year. And when asked about future cruise passenger volume, half said it should be lower.

Pierce said there are three kinds of limits she thinks the cruise industry might agree to.

One is a daily passenger limit. Pierce said the industry doesn’t “love any sort of limits, but they’re comfortable with that discussion.” 

The city and the cruise industry have already agreed to a maximum of five large ships in Juneau per day starting next year, but the overall volume of passengers will remain about the same.

Assembly member Alicia Hughes-Skandijs said she liked the daily passenger limit idea, but that she’d also support negotiating a seasonal limit. 

“I do think the overall number in a season matters,” she said. “Our slow days are less slow than they used to be.”

Another option Pierce said the industry might agree to is a limit on ship size. The Spanish city of Palma de Mallorca has both: just three cruise ships can visit each day, and only one of those can have 5,000 passengers or more.

“We don’t have the infrastructure in Alaska to get those massive ships like you see in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, but that’s something that we could consider,” Pierce said.

A third option is to schedule ship-free days. Pierce said the industry seems to like that option the least because of how it might affect trip itineraries.

Assembly member Christine Woll said she’d want to consult local business owners.

“I want to hear from the local tourism industry which of these works for them,” she said. “If we have no-ship days, does everybody close? Do people want to come downtown?”

Pierce said that plan A would be negotiating an agreement with the cruise industry. Regulation from the city government is plan B.

Other communities have tried regulating the industry and wound up in court. Local business owners in Bar Harbor, Maine, sued the town after its citizens voted to approve a 1,000-passenger daily limit. 

City officials in Sitka denied a citizen’s petition to put a visitor cap on the ballot, saying it could be unconstitutional. They denied it for a second time last week.

“Are there regulatory options that could exist? I think the answer is yes,” Juneau Municipal Attorney Robert Palmer said. “But the question is what type of option are we looking at, and what combination of options are we looking at, and how much risk are we willing to take if we have to fight it?”

In 2021, Juneau resident Karla Hart proposed a ballot initiative to set a ship size limit, no-ship days and no-ship hours. It didn’t get enough signatures to go to voters.

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