Cruise allies push for a restart. In some ports, critics push back

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Juneau Alaska port [Credit: Iv Nikolny/Shutterstock.com]
Cruise ships in Juneau in July 2016. If anti-cruise initiatives pass, Juneau would accept only about 348,330 passengers in 2026, or 78% less than what's scheduled for 2022. Photo Credit: Iv Nikolny/Shutterstock.com

While travel groups and politicians from Florida to Alaska are sounding the alarm about the dire economic ramifications of the prolonged ban on cruising, concurrent movements are on the rise to limit cruise tourism when the industry sets sail again.

Key West voters in November decisively approved measures to cap cruise ship size and limit how many cruisers can go ashore. 

This month, Juneau citizens put forth a similar proposal that, if signed by 3,000 residents, will be voted upon in a referendum in October. The measures would limit cruise ship size, capacity and time in port.

In February, Grand Cayman's premier, Alden McLaughlin, said the country may reduce cruise traffic when its borders reopen, saying the government received a "clear signal" from local businesses and residents that they want fewer cruisers on the islands, which in 2019 saw 1.8 million passenger arrivals.

And in Venice, authorities approved a ban on cruise ships entering the Giudecca Canal, which is parallel and adjacent to the city's historic center. Their presence, critics have argued, pollutes the canals and contributes to erosion of the city's foundation.

Such resistance to cruise tourism is not new, but many destinations have used the current travel pause to reconsider their tourism strategies. It emboldened a global network of activists from around the world -- residents of Venice; Sydney; Charleston, S.C.; and Juneau among them -- to form the Global Cruise Activist Network (GCAN) last September. 

The network says it wants clean air, clean water, healthy and resilient communities, fair wages and "to protect wildlife and the climate." GCAN says its goals are diverse, from "abolitionists" who want to end the industry to those working to restrict or reform it.

Anti-cruise movements have long focused on environmental concerns and quality-of-life impacts for communities, especially when ships bring thousands of passengers who can outnumber local populations.

But unlike previous movements, the current resistance comes as those destinations are suffering huge economic losses due to the year-plus suspension in cruise ship arrivals.

This may be most acute in Alaska, which is facing a second season without large cruise vessels in a state where more than half of its tourists arrive via ship. In announcing a lawsuit against the CDC for its prolonged cruise ship ban, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said the loss of cruising would cost Alaska $3 billion.

Hardest hit will be Southeast Alaska, where more than 90% of tourists in ports like Juneau and Skagway come off cruises. If the initiatives pass, Juneau would accept only about 348,330 passengers in 2026, or 78% less than what's scheduled for 2022. 

Karla Hart, a GCAN founder and the Juneau resident who filed the ballot initiative, told news outlets that her goal is to build a tourism industry in Juneau "that consists of overnighting tourists, who come on an appropriate scale to our community, and who put more money into the economy per person in spending. ... Money that will stay in the economy longer."

Opponents argue that land-based tourism comes with its own issues, especially in a destination as pristine as Juneau, which currently has about 1,400 hotel rooms.

"When you look at Juneau and Southeast and how pretty they are, where are we going to build 10 to 15 hotels in order for us to have an increase in capacity?" said Nate Vallier, president of Juneau-based Alaska & Yukon Tours, an operator that works with independent travelers. "We'll have to tear down a lot of trees to build them."

Vallier is among Alaskans who say cruise ships provide an influx of tourists who do not lean on local infrastructure because they stay on the ships but spend money in town and on tours during the day. Vallier does not directly depend on cruisers but still opposes the potential referendum and calls it "shortsighted."

He has a unique perspective on what is happening in Juneau and Key West because he has lived and worked in both destinations. He says the cruise impact comparison is like "night and day."

"The effect on the local community isn't nearly as bad" in Juneau as in Key West, he said, where "it takes you half an hour to get from one end of the island to the other. Of course everyone's fed up -- I was, and that was 15 years ago. You get four ships in there and you can't breathe. Get four in Juneau and it's noticeable downtown but not at the glacier, not in the valley."

Another big difference is that the Florida Keys have 15,000 hotel rooms and far more airlift than ports like Juneau and Skagway. "The referendum would devastate the Southeast Alaska economy," he said.

Julie Saupe, CEO of Visit Anchorage, said that even in her city, in a typical summer season, up to 50% of overnight guests are cruisers. While the impact may be less in other communities, "the concern is statewide. I think, overall, you'll find the industry in the rest of the state really support Juneau's efforts to combat the initiative."

Saupe in particular worries that it sends an unwelcome message, "not just to the cruise lines but to all potential visitors."

Key West Florida port [Credit: Stuart Monk/Shutterstock.com]
Key West voters approved measures to cap the size of ships allowed to dock and the number of cruisers allowed ashore. Photo Credit: Stuart Monk/Shutterstock.com

Key West measures

In Key West, the voters were clear. Measures to ban cruise ships with more than 1,300 people, allow only 1,500 passengers per day to disembark and require Key West to prioritize ships based on health and environmental records each received between 60% to 80% "yes" votes.

After the referendum was approved by voters, a lawmaker hundreds of miles away, Republican state Sen. Jim Boyd of Bradenton, proposed a bill that would nullify their vote and forbid local governments to restrict or regulate Florida seaport commerce or ship size and capacity. The bill had the effect of reenergizing the anti-cruise movement.

The cruise industry doesn't comment on anti-cruise activism frequently. 

"It does prove that we need to do a better job of explaining ourselves, what our role is in the community," Royal Caribbean Group CEO Richard Fain told Travel Weekly about the Key West vote. "That was discouraging, but I think, long term, the economic value of cruising to the society is really very powerful. And I'm proud of our contribution to the local communities, and we need to do a better job of showing that." 

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