A pair of documentary filmmakers is hard at work examining the implications of the rapid growth in cruise tourism projected for Sitka.
Elements of their film, Cruise Boom, are already available to watch online, and many viewers may be surprised to learn that, while the dramatic increase in cruise passengers represents a significant bonanza for the town, there’s also significant worry about the community’s future.
Sitka is expected to see upwards of half-a-million cruise passengers in the 2022 season. Before this, the most-ever in one summer was 280,000 – and many remember the congested intersections, overflowing sidewalks, and the inability to run the simplest errands downtown during peak hours.
And if you’re a business owner, how do you prepare for the surge, especially when – as COVID has shown us – there’s no guarantee that the big numbers will materialize?
Film clip: “It’s exciting and it’s scary at the same time, looking forward to next year.”
Linda Anderson is one of many downtown Sitka merchants who outlasted the slowdown of the pandemic, only to be faced with an altogether different problem: the rebound.
Film clip: “Every business in town is looking for people. It’s not just little clerk jobs. There’s a lot of jobs out there that aren’t filled now.”
Filmmakers Ellen Frankenstein and Atman Mehta explore this idea in the first “short” release in their documentary film Cruise Boom. Mehta says that the rapid expansion of cruise tourism puts Sitka into its own category.
Listen to an extended interview with Atman Mehta and Ellen Frankenstein.
“I think that while there are broad implications,” Mehta explained, “it’s also worth saying that I think Sitka is unique in a way because of the kind of rise, and Sitka is going to be much quicker than other places.”
Their short film, “Preparation,” is one of two so far that Mehta and Frankenstein have offered online. The other is called “Benefits and Impacts.” Frankenstein is the CEO of Sitka-based ArtChange, Inc., which is producing Cruise Boom. In addition to covering main street, they’ve been to municipal planning meetings, toured Sitka’s cruise facility, and visited some of the popular nonprofit venues for cruise tourism in Sitka.
Frankenstein feels that Sitkans in the front lines are rising to the challenge.
“It’s been really amazing to go behind the scenes,” said Frankenstein. “We both of us have no experience in the tourism world. And there’s a lot of thinking going on. A lot of hard work and a lot of collaboration that’s really impressive.”
There is a lot of uncertainty in both short films, however, and a lot of worry. This is a clip of Lisa Busch, the director of the Sitka Sound Science Center, which runs a popular aquarium and hatchery.
Film clip: “I’m worried about how we’re going to get this all done in time, and the worst case scenario is that we’re not ready, and the experience is not good. The best case scenario is this remains a wonderful visitor destination and a great community to live in.”
Mehta believes the anxiety felt by Busch and others is justified, based on what has happened elsewhere in the world where cruising has shouldered its way in.
“And what often happened in other cruise destinations is that when there is such a rise in tourism is that you see generic stores selling jewelry and trinkets – stores which are often owned by either cruise companies or other very powerful and rich institutions,” Mehta said. “They tend to show up and price out local businesses and local residents. They drive rents up and property prices up. And I think it’s important to ensure not only that the flavor of town doesn’t change, but also that Sitka doesn’t become sort of a hyper-seasonal economy, in which most of the businesses cater only to tourists. I think it’s going to be important for town to avoid that.”
Mehta cautions that the COVID pandemic demonstrated how volatile the cruise industry is, and that becoming too dependent on the cruise sector could prove devastating if companies chose to one day alter their routes and bypass Sitka altogether.
The producers say that they’ll be filming Cruise Boom throughout the summer in Sitka, with a premiere screening sometime in the late fall.