Sitka Residents Propose New Cruise Ship Limits for 2025

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A group of Sitka, Alaska, residents is taking action against the increasing cruise ship tourism to their town by applying for a ballot initiative aiming to reduce the number of tourists arriving by the 2025 season.

The proposed ordinance, prepared by the nonprofit organization Small Town SOUL, seeks to introduce stricter visitation caps, as well as a shortened cruise season.

“We aim to have the measure on the October election ballet,” said Klaudia Leccese, president of Small Town SOUL. “The timing is tight, so any delays by the city could necessitate a later special election. Our attorney is ready to work with the city on any sticking points to ensure timely progress.”

If the initiative makes the ballet for the City & Borough elections in October, residents of the town of just over 8,300 people will vote on establishing a daily limit of 4,500 passengers on shore and an annual cap of 300,000.

Currently, Sitka’s cruise visitors have swelled to nearly 600,000 annually.

The initiative also proposes a mandatory no-ship day each week, exempting only smaller ships, to give residents a respite from the continuous flow of visitors. Additionally, the tourist season, which currently begins in April and runs through October, would be cut back and limited to May 1 to September 30.

“The cruise terminal’s location near one end of Sitka’s narrow 14-mile strip, with a main tourist attraction at the other, causes significant traffic and congestion issues on peak cruise days,” explained initiative sponsor Larry Edwards. “This overcrowding not only affects our small town’s quality of life but also strains local infrastructure, including cell phone and internet capacities, which become safety concerns.”

The initiative also proposes penalties for cruise lines that exceed their scheduled “persons ashore” limits and calls for accurate passenger and crew counts, demanding independent verification to improve data accuracy, a measure that has not been implemented in previous decades despite ongoing concerns.

A Lengthy Battle Ahead

This is not the first challenge from residents in an attempt to establish boundaries for the burgeoning cruise industry. Edwards had previously petitioned the city in 2023 to enact a 240,000-passenger cap, also requesting a weekly limit of no more than 13,350 guests. The initial proposal also requested placing hefty fines on cruise ships exceeding the limits.

The city denied the petition in September 2023, citing the plan was confusing, misleading, and incomplete. The setback did not deter Edwards, who has teamed up with Small Town SOUL to impose a clearer directive ahead of the elections.

Sitka Cruise Visitors
Sitka, Alaska (Photo Credit: Jeff Whyte)

If the initiative makes it to the ballet in October, the speed of which the plan aims to limit passengers by 2025 is unlikely to be met. In Bar Harbor, Maine, for example, residents have been fighting a legal battle with the city and its business owners to instill a 1,000 daily cap on cruise passenger arrivals since 2021.

Read Also: Bar Harbor Gets Approval to Radically Limit Cruise Ship Passengers

Although the Town Council approved the ban in November 2022, proposing to launch the cap by summer 2024, lengthy appeals have extended into the current season.

A District Court judge upheld the passenger cap in March 2024, the battle was taken to the Federal Court, which also rejected attempts to stop the ban. However, an appeal is now back at the District Court and the town has yet to impose limitations.

Every major cruise line currently operates in Alaska, with Sitka has a key port of call. Limiting the number of passengers allowed to visit by nearly half would be a significant blow to the cruise industry and would undoubtedly see pushback from the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which already manages the logistical challenge of limited ports available in the state.

Still, hope is not lost on Sitka residents who recently learned Juneau, Alaska, and CLIA agreed to set a daily passenger limit to 16,000 per day. Announced earlier this month, the limitation further lowers the cap to 12,000 on Saturdays.

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