Sitka commission to develop plan for predicted tourism boom in 2022

The neopanamax ship, Ovation of the Seas visiting Sitka in 2019. (Katherine Rose/KCAW)

While cruise ships won’t be showing up to Sitka in droves this summer, the 2022 cruise ship season is expected to break records.

Sitka expects 400,000 cruise ship passengers in 2022. That exceeds the city’s 2008 record by more than 100,000 passengers, according to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce. City officials believe the steep uptick in tourism could put a strain on infrastructure, so last month the assembly directed the local Planning Commission to develop a “Tourism Master Plan.”

Last week, the Sitka Assembly met with the Planning Commission to flush out what a “Tourism Master Plan” should look like. According to a memo from Planning Commission director Amy Ainslie, the city developed visitor industry plans in 2006 and 2007, before Halibut Point Marine built its private cruise ship terminal that serves most of the large cruise ships coming to Sitka. The company is expanding the dock to handle two 4000 passenger boats at a time.

Planning Commission chair Chris Spivey said they wanted some assembly guidance on the scope of the plan.

“That’s kind of where we want to focus, is designing an actual plan that is focused, from what seems to be the biggest concern, which is the number of folks that will be possibly downtown or in our community as a whole,” Spivey said. “Not on possibly anything other than handling the people.”

Assembly member Rebecca Himschoot said that logistics were at the top of her list for the initial focus of the work.

“I want to know how do you make a left turn from Lake Street to Lincoln Street in the summer? How do you get across the bridge in the summer? Do people who are visiting Sitka who might have mobility issues have enough places to sit down?” Himschoot asked. “Bathrooms? Do we have enough restrooms?”

Planning Commission member Katie Riley said she wasn’t sure that the commission was the right group to tackle a “Tourism Master Plan” by itself. Riley said she was concerned with the larger ripple effects a big tourism year would have on things like housing, waste management and Sitka’s overall capacity to absorb a huge influx of tourists. She said that the assembly should consider hiring a consultant to develop a more comprehensive plan.

“I want to help. I want to engage with the planning commission to come up with this plan, and I think that there’s a lot of progress we can make in terms of dispersal, and congestion, you know, traffic flow, stuff like that,” she said. “But I really do think that the city needs to invest in bringing professionals to help us create a plan that’s going to work with our community not just for next year but for the next ten years and out into the future because it’s only going to grow.”

Himschoot said that while the city needed something in place soon for 2022, she agreed that a more comprehensive document was necessary to tackle some of the bigger questions around the future of tourism in Sitka.

“Our best dollar value visitor is the independent traveler. And they’re not coming here to have downtown overrun and infested, right? So the needle that you’re threading is how many independent travelers are here and how do we maintain quality for them as well as ourselves, and have this large number of people coming in?” asked Himschoot.

Commissioner Riley said she spoke with a consultant who estimated the cost of developing a comprehensive tourism plan at around $200,000. Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz said they would consider recommendations made by the commission, should they ask for a consultant’s help or other support. And while assembly members agreed that a larger comprehensive plan was needed, most wanted to see a more immediate plan focusing on 2022 completed by December.

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