Off-the-beaten-path Sitka reckons with a cruise ship boom

The abrupt increase in cruise passengers is testing not only Sitka’s tourism infrastructure but the community’s vision of itself.

SITKA — On a recent weekday morning, the weather forecast was looking pretty good for Sitka. The breeze was light, and what people in Southeast Alaska call a sucker hole — a patch of blue sky in an otherwise overcast sky — had developed.

The tourist forecast, however, was “orange,” meaning that on this particular Tuesday, cruise ships were expected to deliver between 3,000 and 5,999 humans to this Southeast Alaska town for the day, where they would be shuttled into the historic downtown to wander among charming shops and amble through an old-growth forest dotted with totem poles. The main drag of downtown would be closed to vehicles to accommodate the surge.

Sitka, a city of about 8,300 people known for arts and fishing and hemmed in by ocean and towering forest, has been a cruise ship destination for years. Owing to its isolated location on Baranof Island on Southeast Alaska’s outer coast, it has historically attracted smaller, high-end adventure cruises as well as independent travelers arriving by air and ferry.

Now, that’s changing.

Thanks to a new privately owned cruise ship dock and terminal, it’s hurtling toward becoming a mainline destination on Southeast Alaska’s lucrative cruise route, joining established ports like Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway that have grappled with how to balance the economic engine of tourism with quality of life for local residents.

The abrupt increase in volume of cruise ship passengers is testing not only Sitka’s tourism infrastructure, but the town’s vision of itself.

Sitka filmmakers Ellen Frankenstein and Atman Mehta have been documenting the lead-up to the record-breaking cruise summer since last fall for a series of short films called “Cruise Boom,” produced through Frankenstein’s ArtChange organization.

Initially, Frankenstein wasn’t interested in making a film about the cruise industry. But last fall, as the city grappled with how to prepare for record cruise visitor numbers in short order, it began to seem like a story that couldn’t be ignored.

“People kept saying, ‘This is potentially a pivotal and transformative time that could change this community,’” Frankenstein said in an interview. The filmmakers found both fear and optimism among the city leaders, tourism sector workers and others they interviewed.

“There’s a real fear that the community could change,” she said. “Not be itself. That (the cruise boom) would lead to it becoming a caricature. We don’t want to be Ketchikan or Skagway, or to experience what Juneau does.”

“One of the things at the heart of this film is people in Sitka trying to think through this question — what kind of community do we want to live in?” Mehta said.

[Tourists and cruise ships are ready to return to Seward. But is Seward ready for them?]

This summer, Sitka is projected to host more than 400,000 visitors arriving via cruise ship. That’s mild compared to Juneau or Skagway, forecast to see more than 1 million. But the projected arrivals still more than double the biggest cruise seasons in Sitka’s recent history. And with new infrastructure in place and a ravenous, post-pandemic demand for Alaska cruising, the future likely holds even more visitors for Sitka: The city’s short-term tourism plan includes estimates of up to 520,000 cruise visitor arrivals in 2023 and beyond.

“It’s pretty dramatic,” said Kevin Knox, the deputy mayor of Sitka. “It impacts everything. You know — community way of life, possible revenues, the economy.”

The biggest ships

On the recent Tuesday morning, a couple of smaller ships anchored out beyond the harbor, amid the small forested islands of Sitka Sound. The Serenade of the Seas, a 961-foot Royal Caribbean vessel, was docked at the new privately owned cruise ship terminal 5 miles out the road.

Thousands of passengers, laden with camera gear and rain jackets and strollers, lined up to ride shuttle buses into town. More than 3,000 of them were expected to disembark, triggering the city to do something it had never done before this summer: Block off the town’s main street to vehicle traffic.

By noon, tourists filled the streets, lining up to buy black cod lunch plates and browsing racks of rain jackets. They strolled the paths of Sitka National Historical Park. They took pictures of the Icelandic poppies and delphinium blooming in front of the Pioneer Home and they posed with the statues of seals in front of the harbor. Wandering through neighborhoods, people stopped to photograph Sitka’s vociferous ravens.

It wasn’t one of the busiest days of the season. On 24 days between May and September, the city should expect 6,000-8,000 visitors on the ground, effectively doubling the population. Those days are coded red on Sitka’s short-term tourism plan.

A new dock

Sitka has previously debated what the right amount of cruise tourism for the town is. In 1998, voters rejected a plan to build a city-owned dock near the downtown harbor. In 2012, the town again debated whether to put the dock question to voters, but the issue never made it to the ballot.

[Tiny Whittier debates an Alaska Native corporation’s proposal for a second cruise ship dock]

A local family-owned business called Halibut Point Marine Services built a deep-water dock capable of hosting much larger ships than the town had previously seen. The dock was first constructed to accommodate a single “Panamax” sized cruise ship of up to 960 feet, said Chris McGraw, an owner and manager of Halibut Point Marine Services.

Then came a dock expansion allowing for two of the largest class of cruise ships sailing in Alaska to dock simultaneously, as well as the construction of a 40,000-foot terminal with restaurants, shops and a loading area for shuttle buses. The McGraw family’s Halibut Point Marine Services is the majority owner of the dock. Royal Caribbean owns a 20% stake and helped with the financing of the expansion project, according to Seatrade Cruise News, an industry publication.

The expansion positioned Sitka to level up in the size and number of cruise ships it could accept. But just as the dock complex opened, the coronavirus pandemic decimated the 2020 and 2021 cruising seasons. So this summer is the first time the town is seeing the boom play out. (And even then, not in full: Local residents say cruises are not sailing full this summer, with 50% to 75% occupancy on some ships, downgrading the impact of projected visitor numbers.)

[From 2021: Big cruise ships aren’t coming to Southcentral Alaska this year. But local tourism operators say independent travelers are helping offset the loss.]

Part of the reason Sitka is attractive for big cruise lines: Other ports are full, and “lightering,” or anchoring and boating passengers into shore for day excursions, takes a lot of time and coordination, especially on the biggest ships.

“Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway have been the primary ports. And most seven-day sailings hit those spots. But with the growth in the industry and additional ships coming to the state, those ports are full on weekdays,” McGraw said.

Sitka is an attractive option because the dock is privately owned and berths can be booked ahead of time, allowing for predictable availability, McGraw said.

Cruise passengers also like what Sitka has to offer. The downtown doesn’t have a heavy-duty tourist-centric feel, McGraw said.

“If you go to Juneau or Ketchikan or Skagway on busy days, the downtown areas are very much commercialized. With the long history of cruise traffic there, there’s a lot of national retailers. And Sitka is still primarily locally owned stores. It still has an authentic feel to it.”

McGraw says the long-term future of cruise tourism in Sitka also involves developing a 17-acre parcel of land near the existing cruise terminal for another day excursion destination featuring ropes courses and other outdoor activities to appeal to disembarking passengers. Part of the motivation is to divert cruise visitors away from the downtown core, he said.

McGraw, the dock owner, says he knows there are people in town who would rather not see Sitka host more cruise ships.

“My plug for cruise travel is they arrive usually around 8 or 9 in the morning and they’re gone by 5,” he said. “They are not … other than the buses, not congesting our roadways with rental cars and filling up our grocery stores. They typically are at venues targeted toward tourists. They contribute heavily to sales tax revenues. And then they’re gone, and a new pack shows up the next day.”

Community response

Sitka residents see both opportunity and peril in the future of cruise tourism. Alicia Gassman, the general manager of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, is upbeat about this summer’s increased arrivals.

“I’m not hearing a lot of negative things about the increase in visitors this summer,” she said. “I think a lot of people are very excited that we have a number of cruise ships coming in that we do.”

The tribe’s tour business, which highlights Tlingit culture and history, is thriving, Gassman said. Future expansions are in the works.

“We’re very happy to be able to share our culture with people who are coming in on the cruise ships,” she said.

Jim Steffen has lived in Sitka since 1978, running boat-building and surveying businesses and at one point serving on a long-range planning commission. He’s mostly retired now.

This summer, he noticed the diesel buses running up and down Halibut Point Road all day. He has concerns about the noise and pollution, and also about the downtown being blocked off to cars. He avoids the area on days when he knows cruise ships will be in town.

“My feeling is it’s kind of gotten dumped on Sitka by the owners of the cruise dock,” he said. “They claim Sitka has known this was coming for quite a while. Well, it takes a city years to do capital projects and to make plans, so the town is not quite ready for this.”

To Steffen, it feels like “kind of a new day, with the cruise ship dock and the size of the ships these days,” he said. “Some people feel trepidation.”

Andrew Cremata, the mayor of Skagway, has some advice for a town facing a nascent cruise boom.

Skagway saw exponential cruise growth in the 1990s and 2000s, when its gold rush history and scenery made it a key destination for Alaska ships. Now 96% of the town’s economy is tied to cruise ship traffic and the town is highly seasonal. In the winter, about 1,000 people live there. In the summer, the population swells to more than twice that. Between travelers, crew and residents, a big cruise ship day can mean 25,000 people in town, Cremata said. Over the course of this summer, more than 1.1 million cruise ship visitors are expected to arrive.

Skagway had to build infrastructure to handle the biggest days, but many shops and restaurants close in the winter.

“Too much in the season will ultimately mean less year-round,” he said.

That’s a big fear for Sitkans, Knox said. The town prides itself on being a year-round, fully-functional community: Sitka is the kind of place that supports a family-owned daily newspaper, a thriving and popular public radio station, a local drug store, bookstore and dozens of nonprofits focused on arts and culture. Even the grocery store, Sea Mart, is locally owned. (And boasts a parking lot ocean view.)

“As long as you know, some of these shops can stay open year round, and not just be seasonal,” he said. “Nobody wants to see a dark downtown.”

Cremata sees Sitka as “absolutely becoming a main line stop” for cruises.

“They are going to see this exponential growth,” he said.

[COVID or not, Alaska-bound cruise ships are back in Seattle]

Some people have asked the city if there are ways to limit the number of boats, which with a private dock the municipality doesn’t have much control over. Short of an aggressive head tax to deter visits or caps, Knox isn’t sure what exactly Sitka’s best posture toward the cruise corporations should be.

That could set up an “adversarial relationship with the cruise industry,” he said, which “probably wouldn’t be the best thing in the world to do.”

For now, Sitka is riding the wave of visitors. On that Tuesday, tourist forecast orange, the streets and trails remained crowded through the afternoon. Shuttle buses clunked up and down Halibut Point Road. But around 5 p.m., it emptied out. The visitors were safely back on their cruise ships and Sitka was for Sitkans again.

A block away from downtown, it was quiet enough to hear the ravens squawking from the treetops.

“It is a good town,” said Steffen. “Maybe that’s why people are so protective.”

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Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a reporter who covers news and features about life in Alaska, and has been focusing on corrections and psychiatric care issues in the state. Contact her at mtheriault@adn.com.