Cruise ship limits make it to Juneau ballot; denied in Sitka

Unless Juneau’s city assembly makes the change first, a proposal to forbid cruise ships on Saturdays will be on the municipal ballot in October, but a Sitka push to put cruise ship passenger limits on that town’s ballot has been denied.

They are the latest steps in a broader reckoning in some Southeast communities about the effects of increased traffic from cruise ship tourism.

Cruise ship passengers are a mainstay in the regional economy. But people like Karla Hart in Juneau say increased passenger numbers come at a cost to quality of life.

“I know what Juneau used to be, and I know what it could be and it isn’t now, and so I’m fighting to bring some of that back,” she said. “Ship-free Saturdays is a way to just give everybody in Juneau one day a week without the blanket of impacts on our lives. And to me, I believe that if we all have that one day a week without all of the chaos that comes with the cruise industry, that we’ll all be happier and healthier.”

Hart and other supporters gathered enough petition signatures to put the question on the October municipal election ballot. A counter-campaign that asked residents not to sign the petition failed to block the effort.

Juneau recently adopted a voluntary limit on cruise ships that would cap passengers at 16,000 a day starting in 2026. Hart said that doesn’t provide any relief for residents in town of about 30,000 people.

“Most days of the week, we don’t have 16,000 cruise passengers in Juneau, but we’re still overwhelmed with impacts,” she said.

Hart’s initiative garnered 2,359 signatures from Juneau residents that supported the idea. The city clerk certified the signatures and presented the certification to the assembly at its meeting on July 1. The assembly has until Aug. 15 to adopt the measure or allow the question of whether Juneau should adopt ship-free Saturdays to appear on the Oct. 1 election ballot.

In Sitka, the city attorney has decided the ballot initiative in that community did not pass legal muster, according to Klaudia Leccese, who led the effort for the cruise ship advocacy nonprofit Small Town SOUL. It was residents’ third attempt to limit cruise ship passengers this year.

“We are of course disappointed by the decision,” she said via text on July 3. “We are assessing the advice the city attorney gave to the city clerk and will address his concerns in a fourth initiative application sometime soon.”

The proposal would have limited Sitka to 300,000 cruise ship passengers per year, with no more than 4,500 per day, and ships would have been allowed only between May 1 and Sept. 30 each year. This year, the city expects roughly 600,000 cruise ship passengers.

As many as 9,300 cruise ship passengers will visit Sitka on its busiest days, more than the town’s population of about 8,400.

Supporters of the proposed ballot initiative said their goal is to improve safety on Sitka’s roads, trails, public places and sidewalks by reducing overcrowding, protecting the small-town character, and maintaining Sitka as a high-quality visitor destination.

City attorneys denied the proposed ballot measure’s certification on July 2 because they found it has “misleading, confusing and incomplete terms” and that it violates the U.S. Constitution’s Tonnage Clause.

That provision prohibits states or municipalities from interfering with interstate and foreign commerce by imposing port access charges based on a vessel’s capacity (tonnage).

Juneau and Sitka are not the only communities to question the cost benefit analysis that underlies the cruise ship economy. In 2021, Skagway’s mayor floated the idea of a cap on cruise ship passengers — the town of fewer than 1,000 residents welcomes as many as 12,000 passengers a day — but the idea never made it to a municipal ballot.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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