Although summer is winding down, Sitka’s cruise season is still going strong. On September 5, over 9,000 passengers – and still more crew members – packed the main downtown thoroughfare, which was closed to traffic for the day.
For better or worse, this scene is not likely to change in the near future. On September 6, Sitka’s cruise terminal operator told the Sitka Chamber of Commerce that he expects another huge season next year. And although he’s working on a plan to distribute more passengers to activities closer to the terminal, and to reduce the volume of bus traffic, he says he has no plans to turn away any ships.
Barring any unforeseen ship cancellations in the shoulder season, Sitka is set to see slightly more cruise passengers in 2023 than initially predicted, with the season rounding out at around 560,000.
Shuttling the bulk of those visitors to and from Sitka’s privately owned cruise dock has been a top concern for many Sitkans– chief among them complaints about traffic congestion and environmental impacts. Cruise terminal owner Chris McGraw told the Chamber of Commerce that he plans to cut bus shuttling down by half in the next five years, by spreading out arrival times and developing more tours and attractions out the road.
From his end, the shuttle operation is one of the cruise terminal’s biggest expenses, and the logistics are further complicated by when the ships arrive.
“We had Ovation of the Seas yesterday, and it had an 8 a.m. arrival, and we had no queue all morning here at the cruise terminal. Yet, when they come in at 10 a.m., we’ll have 1500 people in line with a 15 to 20 minute wait to get on a shuttle. So those are those arrival times significantly affect the level of bus traffic and shuttle traffic that we have to have on the roads,” McGraw said.
“So my goal is to work with the cruise lines in future years to help alleviate that demand on the shuttle by spreading out those arrival times and and working with the itineraries,” he continued.
McGraw and his tour company Adventure Sitka are no longer involved with a plan to develop 17 acres of city land with Shee Atiká Inc. Instead, he’ll be expanding their dining and retail facilities at the terminal, and adding a 260-seat theater, which he hopes will help disperse passengers on arrival.
“That’ll be utilized for live performances, and informational, immersive video presentations. We’re looking to work with some of the local venues to provide content and experiences, and then the goal with this will be to help reduce that demand on the shuttle,” McGraw said. “You could have 260 people that have tickets to a first showing that aren’t gonna necessarily want to go get on the very first shuttle to town. So it helps distribute people throughout the community better.”
But these changes don’t address the question foremost in the minds of many residents:, the record-breaking number of cruise passengers visiting Sitka this year, and whether it’s too high. That came through during the Q&A portion of McGraw’s virtual presentation. One person asked, “Do we have to have 500,000 passengers?” McGraw said that was up to the market and the available infrastructure, but he wouldn’t turn a cruise ship away.
“If there’s demand to come to Sitka, and the infrastructure is available for space, as a private business owner, and if I can accommodate them with respects to my resources and my shuttle operation, I’m going to book that that ship,” McGraw said.
“Obviously, we have a significant investment we’ve made here over the last 10 years. And you know, the point of a for-profit business is to get a return on that investment. So we do that through customers, and our customers are the cruise ships.”
Not every ship that calls in Sitka uses the cruise terminal. On the busiest days, smaller cruise ships may anchor in front of town, and bring passengers ashore at one of two lightering docks in the harbor. Nevertheless, McGraw said the community can expect the same level of cruise traffic next year, around 560,000 passengers.