Juneau’s New Strategy: Limiting Cruise Ships to Manage Over-Tourism

Cruise ships line the Juneau waterfront on Wednesday, June 8, 2022.

Alaska’s state capital is poised to become the first city in Alaska and among a select few in the U.S. to cap the number of daily visitors from cruise ships.

Under the terms of a voluntary agreement unveiled on Monday and set to take effect in 2026, the country’s four biggest cruise lines will restrict their ships to no more than 16,000 standard beds, referred to as “lower berths,” in Juneau per day, with the number decreasing to 12,000 on Saturdays.

This decision follows increasing complaints from local residents about issues such as overcrowding, housing shortages, noise, and air pollution.

“The goal and the message here is that Juneau is hitting pause on growth,” said Alexandra Pierce, the city’s tourism manager, of the agreement.

Because some ships sail above their listed capacity, the number of tourists allowed by the agreement may exceed 16,000 on some days, and that figure also doesn’t include visiting crew.

Some city residents say the agreement doesn’t go far enough to answer residents’ complaints, and they’re gathering petition signatures for a ballot measure that would ban cruise ships altogether on Saturdays.

One of the organizers of that measure, Karla Hart, said that even if the city’s agreement were for 12,000 or 5,000 people per day, it doesn’t give people a break from the cruise tourism season, which stretches from April through October.

“I’m still going to have helicopters flying over … there will still be whale-watching boats in numbers big enough that people can’t avoid those; all of the impacts of the industry will still be going even if there are some reductions in numbers of cruise passengers,” she said.

A counter-campaign, urging locals to not sign the petition, is already underway.

Juneau, a city of 32,000 residents, welcomes more than 1.6 million visitors annually, and on peak days, more than 21,000 tourists may visit by cruise ship.

By number of ships and number of visitors, Juneau is the most popular whale-watching destination in the world, the city claims. The Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, located within city bounds and operated by the U.S. Forest Service, is the most-visited tourist attraction in Alaska.

“The full-on cruise season in Juneau now is about 22 weeks long, which spans all of our summer plus our spring and our fall,” Hart said.

Travelers frequently spread out across the city, climbing aboard helicopters, boarding whale-watching boats and riding buses.

Hark described listening to strings of eight or more helicopters flying over her home.

“It’s every day that people who are in their own homes are interrupted and disturbed by helicopter noise,” she said. “Their enjoyment of their yard, of the trails around their home is disturbed by helicopter noise. And people who want to go out boating are disturbed or displaced or disrupted or endangered by a fleet of over 70 whale-watching boats … which creates horribly confused wakes and noise and disruption.”

Some businesses are already taking steps to mitigate the problems.

Wings Airways, which operates floatplane tours to a secluded lodge, has self-imposed limits on its operations according to Holly Johnson, a vice president at the company. The fleet remains capped at five airplanes.

“It’s something we’ve sort of always done behind the scenes, because it was the right thing to do for our business,” she stated.

Wings stands out as an exception: Post the COVID-19 pandemic emergency period, the influx of cruise visitors to Juneau surged by 40% between 2022 and 2023.

“That was shocking for people, and we had a lot of community reaction,” Pierce said.

She said the busiest days “have felt a bit suffocating for a lot of people and we’re trying to eliminate that and create some balance for the community.”

For the city, the difficulty has been balancing the interests of workers employed in the tourism industry with the needs of local residents who feel the consequences.

As far back as 2019, Juneau had convened a task force to consider a cap on the number of visitors, and current discussions began in March, she said.

Pierce mentioned that the new limit aims to stabilize the volume of tourists, facilitating the expansion of both the local infrastructure and attractions. This includes projects like a new summer gondola in the ski area, an additional cruise ship dock to disperse the influx of tourists, and enhancements to the Mendenhal Glacier site as planned by the Forest Service.

“Our objective is to make one and a half million visitors feel like a million, by expanding the infrastructure,” she commented.

Setting the regulation to start in 2026 gives cruise companies sufficient time to rearrange their schedules, according to Renée Limoge Reeve, vice president of government and community relations for Cruise Lines International Association Alaska.

This adjustment period also allows other Southeast Alaska ports to prepare for the redirected traffic from ships that might have otherwise docked in Juneau.

Juneau’s approach is a voluntary agreement, which differs from some approaches taken elsewhere. The city of Key West, Florida, passed several voter-approved ordinances putting hard limits on cruise ships, but those were vetoed by the state legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis.

In Bar Harbor, Maine, locals installed a hard cap of 1,000 cruise ship passengers per day. A U.S. District Court judge upheld that limit after a legal challenge, but the case has been appealed.

In Alaska, the city attorney in Sitka rejected a Bar Harbor-like limit last year as unconstitutional under the language of the Alaska Constitution.

Juneau itself had an extended legal battle with the cruise industry over the use of head taxes paid by passengers. The city lost that case, which now limits how the city can spend passenger? taxes.

Learning from the experiences of other cities, Juneau was motivated to engage in negotiation and establish a voluntary limitation. Pierce emphasized that this doesn’t imply the city will capitulate to the industry should the cruise lines not honor the agreement.

Juneau owns three out of the four docks utilized by cruise ships, and Pierce mentioned that in a severe situation, the city could close these docks, stating, “We do have a lever of control; we simply prefer not to use it.”

In addition, Hart expressed her readiness to let the citizens of Juneau vote on a stricter measure. Should the initiative reach the ballot this upcoming fall, she anticipates that the ensuing campaign might become intense.

Currently, some businesses in Juneau are displaying banners discouraging the public from signing the initiative.

“Our narrative is pretty straightforward,” she mentioned. “It embodies the real experiences of individuals. So, we’re committed to doing the groundwork to allow the community to make a decision. It will then be in the hands of the community to decide. We’ll observe the outcomes.”

Alaska Beacon is affiliated with States Newsroom, a nonprofit journalistic network funded by grants and a group of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon upholds editorial independence. For inquiries, contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman at info@alaskabeacon.com. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

The article Awash in tourists, Juneau prepares to turn some cruise ships away was originally published on Washington State Standard.

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