Fewer cruise ship passengers may be able to enjoy Sitka in the future as residents of the popular Alaskan port call for a vote to impose limits on ship visits. This follows a record-breaking cruise season that has raised concerns about visitors’ impact on the small community.
Local Resident Proposing Ship Limits in Sitka
Sitka resident Larry Edwards has drafted a ballot initiative proposing to strictly limit cruise ship visits to the popular southeastern Alaska community.
Edwards’ concerns have arisen from the startling rise in cruise ship visitors to Sitka. During the 2023 sailing season, which has just about a dozen ship visits remaining as the season winds down, Sitka has already seen more than 550,000 guests. This more than doubles the typical amount of visitors in pre-pandemic years, and far outstrips the 2022 record of 383,000 cruise visitors.
Should such growth continue, the small community of Sitka – which has a population of just 8,500 residents – could easily be overwhelmed.
“There have been a number of surveys done that have shown that about two-thirds of people in town think it’s way over the top, and has been for quite a while. It’s been controversial since the 1990s,” Edwards said to Alaska Public Media.
Edwards’ proposed limit is 240,000 cruise visitors per year, a number he derived as an average of the last 20 years of pre-pandemic visitor data. Furthermore, he proposes a weekly limit of 13,350 visitors and daily limits based on Sitka’s existing population, so as to avoid overcrowding.
Visiting ships would have to secure permits for an “authorized spot in the Sitka Cruise Visitation Schedule” under this initiative.
“Every vessel must have a fair shot at scheduling across the cruise season, even if not admitted to the schedule in certain desired day(s) or week(s), but while accepting the reality that larger vessels inherently might not succeed as often as smaller ships in the scheduling competition,” the initiative reads.
Reasoning listed in the initiative for the visitor limitation is to improve safety, to protect the health and well-being of residents, to protect “Sitka’s rural small town character and way of life,” and to protect the community’s integrity as a top destination.
It should be noted that ferry operations and any visiting vessels with a capacity of less than 100 persons are excluded from the capacity limits.
Edwards cites the cruise ship limits in Bar Harbor, Maine as inspiration for his proposal, but has crafted a more lenient and what he feels is a “logical” approach that takes into account the community’s size rather than just imposing a flat number.
Local legislators will review the initiative, but have already expressed concern about possible legal action against such measures – something that is also underway in Bar Harbor.
Bringing the Measure to a Vote
Edwards’ ballot initiative has a total of 45 sponsors, but will need a petition of more than 800 signatures to make it to the next stage of the process, which includes a review by the city. Edwards anticipates being able to gather adequate signatures in just a few weeks.
If the initiative passes the city review, Sitka residents may be voting on the initiative in early December, and the proposed limits could be in place for the 2024 Alaska sailing season.
Edwards’ notes that his proposal is intended as an interim measure only, meant to spark discussion in the community about how to better manage cruise ship visits.
“The prescribed level is a reasonable starting point that can stand until such time that adjustments may be made,” the initiative reads.
This could dramatically impact ships able to visit Sitka, one of the more popular ports of call on many Alaskan cruise itineraries. The community is regularly visited by ships from Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, Oceania Cruises, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Silversea, Cunard Line, and more.