Visitor industry stakeholders from around the state gathered in Juneau last week for the annual Alaska Travel Industry Association convention.
After a season of record-breaking growth, the gathering celebrated the summer’s success. But while some communities and tour operators look to expand their foothold in the industry, others voiced concern about the need for serious conversations about how much is too much.
John Binkley, former president of Cruise Line International Association of Alaska, told conference-goers last week that this summer’s growth was actually slightly less than projected — 14% as opposed to 16%.
That’s still about 200,000 passengers more than last year. But Binkley said it wasn’t as noticeable as some people feared.
“As I’ve spoken to different communities around the Southeast, that they have felt as though it was handled very well and that they were able to absorb that growth,” Binkley said.
Even though Binkley’s role as head of the state chapter of CLIA came to an end on Friday, his interest in the industry will continue.
His family business still runs river cruises in Fairbanks and owns a stake in Wings Airways, a flightseeing company operated out of downtown Juneau in the summer.
Since nearly every cruise ship itinerary includes Juneau, Binkley said the industry looks to it as a statewide standard.
“So when we see things, trends happening in Juneau in terms of volumes, it’s really indicative of what the industry is doing all around Alaska as well,” he said.
He downplayed concerns about whether the number of passengers visiting Southeast is getting out of hand, especially since next year’s growth is expected to be smaller at about 6%.
“It’s more about how do we reduce the conflicts that there are when there are large numbers of people in the community?” Binkley said. “That’s what Juneau has done so well and other communities are starting to recognize that and do things similarly.”
Juneau does have a long history of managing tourism impacts. That’s thanks to a local program that brings together stakeholders to figure out solutions to things like traffic congestion and noise from helicopters and floatplanes. Other communities, including Ketchikan, are now implementing aspects of the program.
The group, called Tourism Best Management Practices, also runs a hotline for residents to call in with concerns. And they do, with everything from whale watching tours to cruise ship emissions.
This year the hotline received 93 calls. That’s a lot more than last year.
Kirby Day manages the program in addition to working for Princess Cruises. He said the high number of calls this summer didn’t come as a surprise given this year’s growth.
“Overtourism is not a myth,” Day said. “I think that we’re probably not there yet. But we could be if we don’t continue to go on the path of talking to the community, listening to the community, that’s important, and and reacting to some of the things that community members and residents are concerned about.”
Sarah Leonard is the president of Alaska Travel Industry Association. While ATIA represents non-cruise tourism as well, cruise ships bring more than half of Alaska’s annual visitors.
“I think the issue is providing a quality experience for visitors,” Leonard said. “Alaska overall attracts over 2 million visitors to our state. And I think a commitment from our industry across the board is to continue to continue those quality and safe experiences.”
But there are others who feel now is the time to have a frank conversation about the number of tourists visiting Alaska. Not just how to manage them, but whether there should be a limit to the growth.
Juneau resident Dan Blanchard owns Uncruise Adventures, a small cruise ship company that caters to small group experiences.
“How much is too much? I think we have to come up with a criteria of what that signal is, so that we can convince ourselves and the community and say, ‘This, this is the threshold you’re looking at,’” Blanchard said.
He said that threshold may not be a number, but it should be something quantifiable.
Talks are already underway at the local level to create a tourism task force made up of stakeholders from the industry who will sit down and examine the impacts of continued growth.