JUNEAU -- Tight federal budgets have prevented desired upgrades to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, even as visits to one of the world's most accessible glaciers have soared in recent years.
Now the U.S. Forest Service, which operates the center, is planning to make those visitors pick up more of the cost of the top local tourist attraction.
Starting next season, the fee to enter the center's building will go from $3 to $5, and the Forest Service will also begin charging the fee for other popular areas, such as the viewing pavilion, the Steep Creek trail's salmon, and sometimes black bear, viewing platforms, along with the popular trail to Photo Point, Juneau District Ranger Brad Orr said Wednesday.
Many visitors, the vast majority of whom arrive in Juneau on cruise ships, visit Mendenhall Glacier as part of a commercial group, ranging from a bare-bones $30 shuttle to a $300 package that also includes a whale-watching excursion.
Some tours, such as those with Holland America Line and local Gastineau Guiding, already include visitor center admission as part of their charge. Others pay at the door, said center manager John Neary.
Visitors will likely be supportive of the increased fees if they know it is going to improve amenities, he said.
And the Forest Service knows how popular closeup access to a glacier is.
"I've been told by many of the tour operators that you can't really sell a tour in Juneau if it doesn't include a stop at the glacier," Neary said.
Passes for repeat visits, like those for local residents, will be $15, and senior and other passes are available, he said.
"For most people it will be collected through their tour operator, it will be part of a tour package they buy. For others, which should be about 10 percent, we expect a lot of them to be repeat visitors who would be interested in a repeat pass, such as our annual pass," Neary said.
The access fee will continue to be charged only in the tourist season, from May 1 to Sept. 30, and will be first imposed next May.
Neary said he expects the new charges will boost admission revenue from $750,000 to about $2 million a year.
The fee was first established in 1999 and has gone 17 years without an increase, he said. During that time, visits jumped from 200,000 to 450,000 per year, making it the top attraction in the state's top cruise port.
The new revenue can help make the visit to the glacier a more memorable experience, he said.
"This is the dream. The idea here is we have a retreating glacier, and a lot of people are coming to visit this retreating glacier -- it is their bucket-list trip," Neary said.
He said the center wants to improve the visitor experience in ways ranging from badly needed additional restrooms to better interpretation so people will know what they're seeing. The staff also wants to make the center more sustainable in terms of energy usage and how it deals with wastewater.
"We've got visitors from all over the world -- Japan, India -- and we don't really feel that we're making good connections with them, and we're not really role-modeling it very well either," he said.
While there will be fees for some trails and facilities, Neary said there will still be ways to view the glacier without paying.
"There will be other trails, trails just as popular, such as the Nugget Falls trail, which gets you much closer to the glacier and which will remain free," he said.
Neary said the Forest Service has been discussing internally the fee increase for some time, and proposed it publicly late last year to get public reaction.
"We received quite a bit of comment, and somewhat surprisingly it was fairly supportive, it was about 2-1 in favor of the proposal," he said.