JUNEAU, Alaska — Each year, a crush of tourists arrives in Alaska’s capital city on cruise ships to see wonders like the fast-diminishing Mendenhall Glacier. Now, long-simmering tensions over Juneau’s tourism boom are coming to a head over a new voter initiative aimed at giving residents a respite from the influx.

A measure that would ban cruise ships with 250 or more passengers from docking in Juneau on Saturdays qualified for the Oct. 1 municipal ballot, setting the stage for a debate about how much tourism is too much in a city that is experiencing first-hand the impacts of climate change. The measure would also ban ships on July 4, a day when locals flock to a downtown parade.

The “ship-free Saturdays” initiative that qualified this week will go to voters unless the local Assembly enacts a similar measure by Aug. 15, which is seen as unlikely.

Juneau, accessible only by water or air, is home to the Mendenhall Glacier, a major draw for the cruise passengers who arrive on multi-story ships towering over parts of the modest downtown skyline. Many residents of this city of about 32,000 have concerns about increased traffic, congested trails and the frequent buzz of sight-seeing helicopters transporting visitors to the Mendenhall and other glaciers.

Deborah Craig, who has lived in Juneau for decades, supports ship-free Saturdays. Craig, who lives across the channel from where the ships dock, often hears their early-morning fog horns and broadcast announcements made to passengers that are audible across the water.

The current “overwhelming” number of visitors diminishes what residents love so much about Juneau, she said.

“It’s about preserving the lifestyle that keeps us in Juneau, which is about clean air, clean water, pristine environment and easy access to trails, easy access to water sports and nature,” she said of the initiative.

“There’s this perception that some people are not welcoming of tourists, and that’s not the case at all,” Craig said. “It’s about volume. It’s about too much — too many in a short period of time overwhelming a small community.”

The current cruise season runs from early April to late October.

Opponents of the initiative say limiting dockings will hurt local businesses that rely heavily on tourism and could invite lawsuits. A voter-approved limit on cruise passenger numbers in Bar Harbor, Maine, another community with a significant tourism economy, was challenged in federal court.

Laura McDonnell, a business leader who owns Caribou Crossings, a gift shop in Juneau’s downtown tourist core, said she makes 98% of her annual revenue during the summer season.

Tourism is about all the “local businesses that rely on cruise passengers and our place in the community,” said McDonnell, who is involved in Protect Juneau’s Future, which opposes the initiative.

Some schools recently closed due to factors including declining enrollment, while the regional economy faces challenges, she said.

“I think that as a community, we really need to look at what’s at stake for our economy,” she said. “We are not in a position to be shrinking our economy.”

The cruise industry accounted for $375 million in direct spending in Juneau in 2023, most of that attributable to spending by passengers, according to a report prepared for the city by McKinley Research Group LLC.

After a two-year pandemic lull, cruise passenger numbers rose sharply in Juneau, hitting a record of more than 1.6 million in 2023. Under this year’s schedule, Sept. 21 will be the first day since early May with no large ships in town.

The tourism debate is polarizing, and the city has been trying to find a middle ground, said Alexandra Pierce, Juneau’s visitor industry director. But she noted there also needs to be a regional solution.

If the Juneau initiative passes, it will impact other, smaller communities in southeast Alaska because the ships, generally on trips originating in Seattle or Vancouver, Canada, will have to go somewhere if they can’t dock in Juneau on Saturdays, she said.

Some residents in Sitka, south of Juneau, are in the early stages of trying to limit cruise visitation to that small, island community, which is near a volcano.

Juneau and major cruise lines, including Carnival Corp., Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean Group, agreed to a limit of five large ships a day, which took effect this year. They more recently signed a pact, set to take effect in 2026, seeking a daily limit of 16,000 cruise passengers Sundays through Fridays and 12,000 on Saturdays.

Pierce said the overall goal is to keep total cruise passenger visitation around 1.6 million, and to even out daily numbers of visitors that can spike to about 18,000 on the busiest days and feel “a bit suffocating.” Juneau traditionally has been the most popular cruise port in the state.

A number of projects around Juneau are expected to help make existing cruise numbers feel less impactful. Those include plans for a gondola at the city-owned ski area and increased visitor capacity at the Mendenhall Glacier recreation area, she said.

Renée Limoge Reeve, vice president of government and community relations for the trade group Cruise Lines International Association Alaska, said the agreements signed with the city were the first of their kind in Alaska.

The best strategy is “ongoing, direct dialogue with local communities” and working together in a way that also provides a predictable source of income for local businesses, she said.

Protect Juneau’s Future, led by local business leaders, said the success of the ballot measure would mean a loss of sales tax revenue and millions of dollars in direct spending by cruise passengers. The group was confident voters would reject the measure, its steering committee said in a statement.

Karla Hart, a sponsor of the initiative and frequent critic of the cruise industry, said the threat of litigation has kept communities from taking steps to limit cruise numbers in the past. She was heartened by legal wins this year in the ongoing fight over the measure passed in Bar Harbor, a popular destination near Maine’s Acadia National Park.

She believes the Juneau initiative will pass.

“Every single person who is going to vote has a lived experience and knowledge of how the cruise industry impacts their lives,” she said.



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