With nearly half-a-million cruise passengers expected next summer, Sitka is pulling together a Short-Term Tourism Plan to address the obvious: What to do with so many people. The biggest season on record for the community 14 years ago was just over half as many passengers.
In a special meeting on December 15, 2021, the Sitka Planning Commission reviewed a first draft of the plan, which will have to be in final form in about four months, when the first ship arrives.
Sitka’s largest cruise ship season to date was in 2008, when 285,000 cruise passengers visited town – every single one of them brought ashore from their anchored ship in a lightering boat to a dock downtown.
Lightering was a natural bottleneck that kept the town from being overrun by too many passengers at any one time.
The situation now could not be more different: Only a few, smaller ships will anchor off the harbor, the rest – the really big ships – will moor two-at-a-time at a new private cruise ship terminal eight miles from downtown, and a projected 478,000 passengers will shuttle into town aboard a nonstop fleet of large motorcoaches, beginning in April.
“Quality of the experience matters,” said Sitka’s planning director, Amy Ainslie. “We want to stop everyone’s from sort of piling at one place all at once. We want to keep both the downtown area as well as our other visitor attractions, you know, enjoyable and pleasant to be at. And that means trying to stagger when crowds hit all of those places.”
Ainslie has been cracking the whip to develop a short-term plan to accommodate the large numbers of people, and efficiently disperse them, without alienating retailers who depend on cruise visitors.
“Secondly, that we want to encourage cruise passengers to keep coming downtown their shopping opportunities,” she added. “We have historic sites recreation, there’s lots of great things to do downtown and we don’t we want to continue to encourage visitation downtown.”
The 38-page draft Short-Term Tourism Plan leans heavily into dispersion, transportation, and traffic for the coming summer, and points the way toward more long-term infrastructure planning still to come.
A community survey is likely to generate plenty of ideas for managing people, like providing a dedicated shuttle loop around town, improving signage, or creating a digital wayfinding system using scannable QR codes.
But planning commissioners weren’t quite ready to tackle QR codes. For commissioner Katie Riley, just maintaining telecommunications was a higher priority.
“I don’t know that we feel strongly about that (a digital wayfinding system),” she said. “But I do feel strongly that the limitations of selling internet service do need to be addressed for you know, implementation of that, or literally anything, just just the sheer amount of people that we’re going to have on that.”
At this and previous planning meetings, different vendors have suggested dispersing passengers to excursions and tours at the cruise terminal, rather than shuttling them all into town. Sitka Bike and Hike owner Michelle Barker said this would conform to a current CDC order that doesn’t allow passengers from different cruise lines to mix aboard excursions. Although the order is scheduled to sunset in January, Barker said Sitka should plan for the possibility that it will be extended.
“I think we need to consider these orders that they have to follow,” said Barker. “As we’re doing our planning, we have the facilities to be able to do so instead of busing everybody here, we can use different locations at different ends of town, avoiding the cluster, distributing the passengers just through our planning, without having to I mean, we’re utilizing facilities that are already there, instead of trying to come up with ways to do it. With new entities and shuttle buses.”
Commissioner Wendy Alderson thought that there were advantages to Barker’s suggestion, but Planning Director Ainslie said this particular wrinkle had already been ironed out.
“I do like Michelle’s (Barker) point that you know if there are different drop off areas, and the passengers are already dispersed and and that’s kind of, you know, killing two birds with one stone, per se,” said Alderson. “So that’s something that sticks out in her comments to me.”
Ainslie responded that centralization on the front end of a tour was easier on passengers who are completely unfamiliar with Sitka — but dispersion on the back end had the benefits Alderson was looking for: “Absolutely. And I think one of the one of the great things that has evolved, particularly during the the Harrigan conversations is that several tour operators are now planning to meet passengers here at Harrigan. But then when they do drop off, drop them off at a different location. So we have a centralized meeting place so everyone knows to go to the same point. But then when they’re done with their tour, they can be dropped off at O’Connell or they can get dropped off downtown.”
By far the largest section of the plan is devoted traffic, including a number of possibilities for altering the traffic pattern downtown, by closing Lincoln Street to vehicle traffic entirely on large ship days, or creating one-way traffic flow from Lincoln to various side streets permanently, and building permanent pedestrian infrastructure to make it work.
Ainslie reminded commissioners that they had already put a pin in this section, too.
“So the recommendation from the planning commission was the full closure option from 10am to 4p.m. On days with 3,000 or more cruise ship passengers with the stipulation that efforts to find downtown parking solutions be prioritized.”
Ainslie referred the commission to an engineering study concluding that the maximum number of people who could occupy the sidewalks downtown – moving at no more than “a shuffle” – is 1,600. Based on the projected schedule for 2022, Sitka would have 47 days with more than 3,000 people on the streets, and 24 days with between 6-8,000 people, making a full closure the only option to prevent a human logjam.
At least one member of the audience didn’t think that was feasible. Michael Harmon is the director of Public Works, which would oversee the work to implement the traffic plan. Harmon had his doubts.
“I just wanted to add on this modified full closure, and that the ability to stand this up and take it down every day, or whatever we’re doing — I can’t think of a way to do that. And make it safe,” he said.
To which planning commission chair Chris Spivey replied, mostly tongue in cheek, “Unfortunately, that would not be our problem.”
Built-in to the short-term plan is a recognition that Sitka is entering a new future of large-scale cruise visitation. Ainslie said that longer-term plans must include beefing up infrastructure downtown; building more restrooms; installing more trash cans, benches, and water stations; and improving and incentivizing pedestrian and bike access to downtown for Sitka residents.
But this coming year was going to be about holding things together.
“Right now we have, you know, a reasonable level of confidence that most of our systems will be able to handle the levels of visitation that we’re expecting,” she said. “Again, it’s just the wear and tear and how quickly all of that infrastructure, those assets, will degrade over time, and how often we might be needing to do additional maintenance, how often we might be seeing additional breakdowns and that sort of thing. That’s, that’s really the major unknown.”
The Sitka Planning Commission and the Sitka Assembly are scheduled to meet in a work session on January 13 to review the draft 2022 Short-Term Tourism Plan.