Petersburg’s new visitor plan includes guidance for tourism industry, managing cruise ship wastewater

Ponant’s ship Le Soléal anchored outside Petersburg harbor in August of 2019 (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

The Petersburg Economic Development Council released its final version of a community plan for responding to growth in the visitor industry. That plan presents a range of recommendations for managing more tourists and cruise ships.

A working group of residents, business owners, representatives from local government and the Petersburg Chamber of Commerce drafted the 31-page Visitor Industry Management Plan. They met following interest in 2018 from a cruise company looking to bring boats with capacity for up to 900 passengers to town.

The plan identifies potential impacts from an expanded tourism industry and makes recommendations for management and ways to address possible future growth.

Borough assembly member and chamber board vice president Dave Kensinger said during a radio call-in show last month he thought this plan is a good outline of the issues the community faces.

“I think we need to plan for the future,” Kensinger said. “I think we need to have a level of tourism that the community can embrace and I think the best way to do that without causing a lot of issues are some of the recommendations in this plan, so we can maintain the character of our community and also have a good positive experience for visitors.”

Kensinger thought the community may need to take another look at some aspects of the plan later this year and acknowledged a lot has changed with the advent of the pandemic. Petersburg could see some small cruise ships docking here this year, but didn’t last year. In 2019, the last year with a cruise ship season, Petersburg had an estimated 10,000 passengers visit on those ships.

The plan recommends uses for revenue from a new marine passenger fee that the borough started collecting in 2019. Among the recommendations are public restrooms. The borough has already met some of that need, using CARES Act funding last year to purchase two restroom trailers that could open up in town during the warmer months. But the plan also calls for better signage and mapping for restrooms that are open to visitors and opening additional toilets during the Little Norway Festival and the Fourth of July.

Other possible uses of that passenger fee money are a marine wastewater pump-out station, interpretive signs and an improved visitor map. And other ideas are a covered multi-use area for visitor staging, a better ramp for handicapped accessibility on one end of South Harbor and increased tie-up space for ships.

The plan also investigated options for wastewater discharge, at the heart of some local complaints about cruise ships in 2019. For instance, it says the borough could petition the state to implement a no-discharge zone for ship sewage in borough waters. That would apply to all vessels, however. And that’s something assembly member Jeff Meucci acknowledged on a recent radio show that local residents may not want.

“Yeah we have to be careful about what we ask for,” Meucci said. “There’s lots of components to not letting people dump waste in the harbor that I’m not ready to have that conversation. It’s out there it’s part of this conversation but eventually we’ll be there.”

The plan does include draft best management practices or guidelines for ships. Those suggest no discharges of certain types of wastewater while in port or near Sandy Beach. Meanwhile, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation is already conducting water sampling around Petersburg and other Alaska communities. The Department of Environmental Conservation released preliminary data last month showing unsafe levels of bacteria in water samples taken around Petersburg’s harbors in 2020, a year without cruise ships, as well as other harbors in the state. That water monitoring is continuing into this year.

Other recommendations from the visitor plan came out of focus groups on quality of life, local benefits, infrastructure and planning, communication and quality of experience for visitors.

Among the possibilities are surveying the community about support for visitors or finding out what cruise companies and their passengers are interested in when docking here. The borough could also monitor changes in annual port calls and passengers and establish triggers for evaluating if more growth is desired. The document also recommends a planning process for new docking space or areas for larger ships to lighter in passengers while also exploring ways to lessen pedestrian congestion downtown.

Some recommendations are easy, like providing this plan to cruise and tour companies and suggesting they support community groups and become more vested in the community. Others could be done without too much work, like creating a directory of local services for tourists, posting updated cruise schedules and operating a suggestion line for people to report problems.

It could be up to the assembly to decide the next steps with this plan.

Read next