Juneau advocates seek Saturday ban on large cruise ships next season

City and Borough of Juneau Clerk Beth McEwen (left) hands over paper work to Stacy Eldemar (middle) and Karla Hart (right) after filing a proposed ballot initiative on Tuesday, April 9, 2024. (Clarise Larson/KTOO)

A group of activists in Juneau filed paperwork on Tuesday in hopes of putting a question on the 2024 local election ballot about whether the capital city should begin enforcing “ship-free Saturdays.”

About 20 people gathered at Marine Park downtown to rally for the proposed ballot initiative as the season’s first cruise visitors were heading back to their ship after a few hours in town. Afterward, advocate Karla Hart and four other residents went to City Hall to file the initiative. It would ban all cruise ships that carry 250 or more passengers from visiting Juneau on Saturdays and the Fourth of July. 

“We want one day where we don’t have buses, where we don’t have helicopters, where we can go to Auke Bay,” she said. “One day a week.”

Hart has long been critical of the growth of tourism in Juneau and how it affects people who live here. She said the ballot initiative should be a wake-up call for city officials. 

“I decided that it seems that the city isn’t able to do things on their own, but that the citizens have the right to ask for these things. And since the city doesn’t seem to have the will to do negotiating on behalf of making life better for the residents, then we can,” she said.

a sign
A resident holds a sign at Marine Park in downtown Juneau on Tuesday, April 9, 2024. (Clarise Larson/KTOO)

At a tourism panel last week, Cruise Lines International Association Alaska spokesperson Renée Reeve said ballot initiatives are a big concern for cruise lines. She said negotiated agreements with the city often take longer but are better for the community.

“We don’t turn on a dime, and it may take a little bit longer for us to come to the decisions and for us to make decisions together. But it’s a far better way than litigation and ballot initiatives, in my opinion,” she said.

The city recently announced it had negotiated a conceptual agreement with cruise lines that could limit the number of daily passengers that come off their ships and into Juneau. But the agreement is still far from final, and no specific numbers have been shared with the public yet. If approved, the limits would go into effect during the 2026 season.

If the “ship-free Saturdays” ballot initiative is passed by voters, that could go into effect next year.

City Tourism Manager Alix Pierce said if that happens, it could have widespread impacts — including on all of the other Southeast communities that cruise ships visit. 

“When Juneau makes a move, even something like daily passenger caps that are kind of vetted and reasonable, it impacts everybody else up and down the chain,” she said. “And we need to be very cognizant of that as we move forward.”

Last season, city officials in Sitka denied a citizen’s petition to put a visitor cap on the ballot, saying the proposed legislation would be unenforceable under the Alaska Constitution. Pierce said she does not know if that would happen with the Juneau initiative. 

We’ll have something in front of the assembly as soon as we can on what the implications might look like,” Pierce said.

This isn’t the first time activists have tried to pass ballot initiatives to limit cruise ship traffic in Juneau. In 2021, Hart proposed three separate ones aimed at different aspects of cruise ships’ impacts. 

All three failed to get enough signatures to make it on the ballot, but Hart said she’s more confident this time around. 

Once the city clerk certifies the initiative, the group has 30 days to collect nearly 2,400 signatures.

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