City, cruise lines agree to future restrictions on tourism as first ship of season docks in Juneau

Norwegian Bliss, a 4,000-passenger cruise ship from Seattle, kicks off Juneau’s 2023 cruise season when it docks on April 17. (Photo by Anna Canny/KTOO)

On a foggy Monday afternoon in Juneau, a small welcoming committee gathered at the Alaska Steam Dock, in front of the towering Norwegian Bliss. The 4,000-passenger ship was the first for the 2023 season.

A steady stream of people made their way up the ship’s ramp and onto the shore, where they were greeted with cheers, cards, tour ads and a smiling whale mascot ready for photos.

“Welcome to Juneau, everybody,” said longtime resident Tom Sullivan, who was standing at the top of the ramp. “Have a nice time. I’m glad you’re here.

Not everyone is happy. Just before the Norwegian Bliss docks, major cruise lines finalize an agreement with the city and borough of Juneau to observe a limit of five vessels per day starting in 2024. Some community members say that’s not enough.

Sue Schrader and Pat White appeared with a small group of protesters as visitors arrived at the docks on Monday. They are calling for the city to impose stricter limits on the number of visitors. (Photo by Anna Canny/KTOO)

Sue Schrader was among a small group of protesters in the dock. They stood with signs and a massive banner that was made visible from the cruise decks. It read: “Communities Against Cruise Pollution.”

“Travel has consequences,” Schrader said. “We don’t like to annoy passengers, but they need to know.”

Protesters worry the five-ship limit is too little, too late. They believe that the number of visitors to Juneau has already grown too much. And the 2023 season is expected break recordswith 30% more cruise passengers compared to 2019.

“There still seems to be unlimited growth,” Schrader said. “And we’re asking our elected officials or city leaders to take the issue seriously.”

Five ships is a busy day, but stopping at five may be the best Juno can do. The restriction is the result of a long-negotiated agreement between the city and the International Cruise Line Association, a trade group that represents most of the world’s major cruise lines. This is one of the few such agreements in the world.

The daily limit is not enforceable — this is a good faith agreement. And it doesn’t limit the number of passengers as ship capacity increases across the industry.

During the negotiations, some community members called for an even tighter cap on ships – between three and four ships per day. But Assembly member Maria Gladziszewski recently said the city “will be in court soon” after such a move. In 2016, the cruise industry filed a lawsuit against the city over its use of marine passenger fees, and some city officials have expressed concerns about further litigation.

The agreement sees the city take a more active role in managing visitor numbers than ever before, which could give them more breathing room to create new attractions and infrastructure for growing numbers of visitors.

“This agreement provides our community with the confidence we need to plan for the future,” city tourism manager Alexandra Pierce wrote in the press release. “It is essential that we preserve the things that make Juneau an amazing place to live and visit.”

Juno has long is divided on whether cruise ship tourism benefits or harms the community. Most people fall somewhere in between. But Sullivan, who came to meet Norway’s Bliss, said he was honored to welcome so many visitors to the place he has called home for 40 years.

“It’s a very important economic driver in our community,” he said. “But more importantly, I think it’s really special that a million and a half people want to come to the little town of 30,000 that I live in because of its beauty.”

In the season ahead, Tuesday’s away game will look quiet by comparison. On some days, Juneau Harbor will welcome up to six ships.

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