383,000 cruise visitors in 2022 prompted local leaders to close Lincoln Street to auto traffic on the busiest days. In 2023, an additional 100,000 visitors are possible. Based on data collected in the “2022 Community Assessment on the Impacts of Increased Tourism in Sitka,” a majority of residents feel the rapid growth of cruise tourism has made Sitka a less desirable place to live. (KCAW/Kimmell)

A majority of Sitkans think the rapid increase in tourism last summer made the community a less desirable place to live – or at least that’s the feeling of a majority of respondents of a graduate study conducted in the height of the cruise season last August. As KCAW’s Robert Woolsey reports, collecting data on the impact of tourism is a matter of numbers, and of perceptions.

Note: Priya Gandhi and Samantha Matthews will present their study to the Sitka Planning Commission at its next regular meeting on Wednesday, March 15. Here’s a link to the Brief Report, and a link to the Full Assessement.

Priya Gandhi and Samantha Matthews are students at the Pardee Rand Graduate School of Public Policy in Santa Monica, California. They were the project leaders for a social science study last August to understand how Sitkans perceived the dramatic increase in summer visitation, and how it affected their sense of well-being.

Unlike more casual surveys, this project tried to tease out nuances: For example, Sitkans can appreciate the increase in sales tax revenue derived from visitors, but can be frustrated by the increased congestion.

And Priya Gandhi says the timing of the survey was a factor.

“This is kind of a snapshot into how community members were feeling at that very moment in which they engaged with our efforts,” said Gandhi. “But there are certainly lots of other potential changes, both in terms of tourism and the visitor industry and in terms of Sitka’s planning and responses, that all might feed into differences in these numbers one way or the other in the future.”

The survey results are revealing. 87-percent of respondents reported being impacted by tourism in 2022; 63-percent of respondents felt the uptick in tourism made Sitka a less desirable place to live.

 Sitka underwent significant short-term planning measures to accommodate the roughly 400,000 cruise visitors last summer – around double the typical number of visitors in any previous year. On the busiest days, the main street downtown was closed to traffic, large toilet trailers were parked in less-than-ideal locations, and cafes and restaurants struggled to meet the out-of-proportion demand.

Still, it wasn’t all bad. Samantha Matthews says Sitkans felt the yin and yang of the town’s surge in economic activity.

“A lot of our data show these trade offs that people are facing with increased tourism,” Matthews said. “And so a lot of folks talked about the the economic benefits, the tax revenue that the city would receive, and things like that, but then there were concerns around equity and the economic benefits of tourism, and where would that tax revenue go? So I think some of our recommendations were really just around making that process transparent. So that community members are able to be a part of that process and know where where the economic benefits of tourism are going and making it so that those benefits are more equitably distributed.”

The full study is called the 2022 Community Assessment on the Increased Impacts of Tourism in Sitka. It’s 28-pages long, with another 29 pages of appendices. It is the kind of social study where opinions matter, and the words of respondents come through as much as the data. One Sitkan wrote, “I believe there are economic benefits for our community due to increased tourism, but it’s still unclear if that means all residents will feel financial relief, like decreased utility rates, or if only the residents who work in tourism will feel the financial rewards…”

Gandhi says this type of response can help inform policy, as much as hard numbers.

“It was really our aim to help create sort of that point in time opportunity for the community to share their real time reflections with us, their insights and their suggestions, so that we could then take stock of that, and aggregate it and share it with different individuals and organizations who might be interested in thinking through this potential issue of increased tourism further,” said Gandhi.  

The assessment doesn’t really say what to do next. It has a raft of suggestions offered by survey respondents on housing density, transportation, the environment, and so on – but this is information for policy makers, rather than direction.

Gandhi says the rest is up to Sitka. 

“Sitka has such a collaborative spirit,” she said. “And we can’t emphasize enough just how important and valuable we think that is, in the community coming together to address any issue it might be facing currently, or in the future, that it feels is affecting sort of individuals’ opportunities to thrive, which is really how we are defining well-being.”

The Pardee Rand Graduate School of Public Policy has turned its focus on Sitka and several other communities around the nation, as a way of drilling down into how communities respond under a range of circumstances. Rand, for instance, was an early partner in the development of Sitka’s landslide warning system. Matthews is considering the Tourism Assessment as a basis for her doctoral research. Sitka may eventually adapt to the increase in tourism; attitudes could soften toward the industry – or harden.

She would like to find out.

“This could be something that could be very interesting to repeatedly do each summer and see how things evolve,” she said. “I think it’s definitely worth exploring in the future.

Sitka is anticipating possibly an additional 100,000 more cruise visitors in 2023 than in 2022. The first ship scheduled to arrive is the Brilliance of the Seas, on April 25.