Sitkans take to mic to share thoughts on cruise traffic

a meeting
About 100 people packed into a Jan. 16, 2024 town hall meeting in Sitka on how much tourism is right for the Southeast Alaska town. (Katherine Rose/KCAW)

A Sitka meeting was standing-room-only on Tuesday night, as the city’s tourism task force held its third town hall to ask Sitkans for feedback on how to “right size” tourism in the community.

The room was packed with close to 100 people, but over two hours just under 30 shared their thoughts on what number of cruise visitors is right for Sitka. Zadie Allen of Allen Marine said she likes Sitka’s current cruise numbers.

“I’ve seen many young families that I grew up with be able to start new businesses these last two years because of tourism. Without the overflow created by more cruise ship passengers, many of these young families wouldn’t be able to start their businesses,” Allen said. “Every recent study of our town has told us that our population is declining, aging, and young families are leaving. Why are we trying to put a low number on something that is keeping our born-and-raised Sitkan families in town?” 

Sitka is expecting close to 600,000 cruise passengers next summer, about the same as 2023’s record-breaking year. The Sitka Tourism Task Force has been gathering data over the past several months to determine what level of tourism most Sitkans prefer. But this town hall was the first time they had set up a microphone and a podium and invited the public to step forward.

Diana Fulton agreed that Sitka should keep the level of cruise traffic as-is for now. She said two years into rapid growth is too soon to make a big decision about limits.

“I do think that this is a management issue. The growth is happening. It has happened. So how do we manage it? We have a lot of smart people that live here,” Fulton said. “We live on an island. We are self-sustaining. We can figure this out together, but it’s going to take a lot of work.” 

Those who wanted to cut back on cruise traffic brought up concerns raised during earlier task force meetings – with safety, congestion and air quality topping the list.

Jeff Feldpausch called for capping cruise tourists at 300,000 annually. Feldpausch directs the Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s resource protection department. Speaking as an individual, he said he’s concerned that plans to build infrastructure to help spread visitors out would put the city’s rural status and the subsistence rights of its residents at risk. In 2010, Sitka had to go to battle and defend its rural status. 

“At that time, Sitka exceeded the 2500 person threshold for the community, so we had to go to secondary criteria to defend our rural status. That criteria was use of subsistence resources, your isolation from the road system, your economy base, and your infrastructure within the community,” Feldpausch said. “In 2017, the Secretary of Interior and Agriculture signed into regulation a new set of criteria for rural determination status. Basically the way it says right now is, a petitioner has to show what has changed within a community for it to lose its rural status.”

“What has happened in Sitka since 2010?” Feldpausch asked. “We have blown the doors off of infrastructure.” 

At one point the testimony got a touch heated. Ronald Dick was expressing his concerns about emissions from buses shuttling tourists down Halibut Point Road when his three minute timer ran out. Task force member and cruise dock owner Chris McGraw asked him to take the conversation offline. 

“Chris McGraw has made it plain that he intends to accept as many cruise tourists as he can,” Dick said as the the timer beeped. “He doesn’t give a hoot about my children. And neither his foreign corporate partners or the Chamber of Commerce.

“‘You’re addressing the tourism task force, not me directly,” McGraw said. “If you wish to talk with me, I’m happy to talk with you afterwards.”

“You don’t have any right to deny my free speech. If you don’t want your name called, tough,” Dick said. Both McGraw and fellow task force member Jim Michener said that Dick’s time was up. Dick then addressed the audience.

“You’ve all heard the expression that I’d step in front of a bus for my children. I promise you I will step in front of these buses for my children and grandchildren,” Dick said.

Most public testimony was more subdued by far with a fairly even split between those calling for a reduction to pre-pandemic levels or lower, and others in favor of keeping cruise traffic at or above its current level.  

Task force member Michener said they’d take the information and work as a group to come up with the best melding of all of it, and make a recommendation to the Assembly.

“My goal is to have one person in town be ecstatic because we hit it on the nose, and then have people on the left or right of that have increasing anxiety as they go further from the center. I think that’s a success. I don’t think we can all be happy,” Michener said. “It’s not a perfect process. But we are giving our heart and soul to make it as perfect as possible.” 

The task force has been asked to give a recommendation to the Sitka Assembly by the end of April.

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