The picturesque town of Sitka, Alaska, known for its scenic views and rich cultural heritage, is currently at the center of a debate surrounding the growing number of cruise ships and cruise ship guests that visit the town each summer.
For the second time, Sitkan Larry Edwards is seeking to place the issue of visitor limits before the local electorate. The first time around, in September 2023, his petition was denied, as it was confusing, misleading, and incomplete. However, Edwards hopes to have a better chance after making several amendments in October 2023.
This summer, Sitka witnessed a vast increase in cruise ship traffic, with vessels bringing in more than half a million guests. This number shattered the previous year’s record and more than doubled any other year’s count. While cruise tourism brings in a vast amount of revenue for local businesses, the petitioner believes that the city is now being overrun.
Larry Edwards conveyed his concerns, stating to KCAW News: “So what this initiative is about is giving citizens relief from the high numbers we’ve had and getting things back to the normal we had back in the period of 2001 to 2009 when we had a period of high tourism that was very controversial but was stable. It was at a level that was good for business.”
In September, with the support of over 40 co-sponsors, Edwards put forth a petition with a proposal to create a port district and cap the number of cruise visitors at 240,000 for the next summer season. The original petition, which had the support of 40 co-sponsors, was proposed in September 2023.
The petition also mentioned weekly and daily limits for guests. However, the proposition faced rejection in late September. Municipal Attorney Brian Hanson highlighted the reasons, noting that a port district’s establishment through a public vote wasn’t feasible as the assembly has authority over public assets like land.
Hanson also pointed out ambiguities in the petition concerning how the visitor limits would be implemented, terming it as “confusing, misleading, and incomplete.”
Edwards is now taking a second swing at the issue. On October 26, he submitted a revised petition. The core proposition of capping the visitors to 240,000 next summer remains unchanged.
It would mean that every week, one day there would be space for one-half of Sitka’s population visiting the town by cruise ship (4,500pax), one-day one-third (3000pax), one-day one-quarter (2,250 pax), one-day one-fifth (1,800 pax), one-day one-tenth (900pax), and one day no ships would be allowed in the port.
The total number of visitors each year would be capped at 240,000 visitors from cruise ships would be allowed ashore in Sitka. Cruise ships would also need to apply for a visit permit to Sitka beforehand, making effective cruise itinerary planning challenging for cruise lines.
Instead of creating a port district, the new proposal also advocates for a “tourism” section in the Sitka General Code. The update elaborates on enforcement measures, and outlines fines for vessels that exceed their permitted number of persons ashore.
In the petition, ships that fail to procure the necessary permits, face a $5,000 penalty, with an added stipulation barring them from disembarking passengers until permits are obtained. A cruise ship that exceeds its allotted persons ashore will be fined $10,000 for the first offense and $25,000 for the second.
A third violation results in the ship’s permit being removed and a year-long landing prohibition in Sitka. This count of offenses accumulates across a cruise line’s multiple ships, so if any ship breaches thrice, the cruise line’s permit is terminated for all vessels.
Additionally, an unscheduled, non-emergency port call attracts a $25,000 fine, with the offending ship barred from port calls for a year.
With the city having a fortnight to deliberate and decide on the validity of the petition, the path ahead is interesting, as a successful petition could serve as an inspiration for groups looking to limit cruise ship visits elsewhere. For now, it seems that Edwards’s petition could stand a chance.
Addressing potential challenges, Edwards stated, “We’ll have to have a plan B. But as the city attorney said in his rejection letter, he said that the assembly could do what you’re trying to do here. So I think the next step is to put the pressure on the assembly and say, ‘Do something for us for next year.’”
Interestingly, if Edwards’ revised initiative gets the green light, the subsequent vote would only need about 550 signatures, down from the previously required 800.
Limiting cruise ships visiting Sitka would mean a massive blow for cruise ships sailing to Alaska. The number of cruise ports available in Alaska is already limited, and Sitka has always been a hugely popular call. Finding suitable replacements will be nearly impossible. There will likely be a pushback from the cruise industry, dragging the issue out over a longer period.
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