The Sitka Assembly wants to establish a tourism task force, but they’re still fine-tuning the details. When it met on Tuesday (2-28-23), the assembly discussed creating a committee that would look into the recent surge in tourism and make recommendations, but struggled over the composition of the group.

Last year’s tourist season was record-breaking, due to an increase in cruise traffic. 2023 should be even bigger with over 500,000 cruise passengers expected at the privately owned Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal. 

“We wanted to come up with the directives that we wanted them to look into. And obviously, one of the big ones is the question of capping or limiting the amount of tourists that come into this community,” said assembly member Chris Ystad who co-sponsored the item with JJ Carlson. “Obviously, it’s kind of a hot-button topic here,” Ystad added. “But I’m stubborn, and I wanted to take it head on. And I want this taskforce to take it head on.”

 “This is a taskforce that’s here to aid Sitka in maintaining our quality of life,” Carlson added. “That’s the top priority.”

The task force would explore whether capping or limiting tourism is possible for Sitka, develop an annual review cycle for Sitka’s tourism-related operations, and help create a “Tourism Management Best Practices” Program. 

Several members of the public spoke out in support of a task force including Holly Reeder, of the Aspen Suites Hotel. 

“I think that a taskforce is on the right track, I think that it’s time we start looking at the long range plan here, I’ve been at many meetings and that keeps coming up…to look towards the future, not just this short-term plan,” Reeder said. “I also think that we need to start looking a little bit broader, not just at the cruise tourism, but also our independent travelers, and including some of that in this task force as well.”

Kent Barkau cautioned against a task force that was made up mostly of people with economic interests in the tourism industry without counterbalance from the community.

“It’s a really difficult thing to try to compose a taskforce that’s independent, you know, neutral or somehow represents the whole community,” he said. “But if you stack it one way, I think you can assure yourself that it’s going to be stacked that way, and so the results you would expect would be predictable.” 

Sponsors proposed that the nine member group include representatives from the Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal, Lincoln Street businesses, tours and attractions, as well as two at-large community seats, and one appointed seat each from the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, Port and Harbors Commission, and Sustainability Commission, respectively.

Across the board, assembly members supported creating the task force. Tim Pike said he’d heard so-called “simple solutions” proposed, like a referendum that would ask voters to weigh in on the number of tourists visiting Sitka. But he felt more extensive conversations are needed within the community first to better understand what the Sitkans want.

“I think what questions we end up asking, and why, and what questions we ask of the community to elicit a deeper thoughtful response from everyone, I think will determine the success of this commission,” Pike said.

But there were still questions about the makeup of the group and how many representatives there should be for a given industry or perspective, how those members would be vetted, and the role city staffers would play.

Ultimately, sponsors JJ Carlson and Chris Ystad decided to tweak their language and bring a resolution back for assembly consideration at the next regular meeting in mid-March. If it’s approved by the assembly, the city will start advertising for volunteers to join the new task force.