A new documentary explores the impacts of Sitka’s rapid cruise tourism growth

The Serenade of the Seas in Sitka on July 21, 2021, the first port call of the curtailed 2021 cruise season. The 632 passengers had room to spare on the ship, which has a capacity of almost 2,500. (Photo by Tash Kimmell/KCAW)

A pair of documentary filmmakers is examining the implications of the rapid growth in cruise tourism projected for Sitka.

Their film “Cruise Boom” depicts significant worry about the community’s future amid the dramatic increase in cruise passengers. Parts of the film are already available to watch online.

Sitka is expected to see upwards of half-a-million cruise passengers in the 2022 season. Before this, the most in one summer was 280,000 – and many remember the congested intersections, the overflowing sidewalks and the inability to run simple errands downtown during peak hours.

And if you’re a business owner, how do you prepare for the surge, especially when — as COVID-19 has shown — there’s no guarantee that the big numbers will materialize?

Linda Anderson is one of many downtown Sitka merchants who outlasted the slowdown of the pandemic only to be faced with an altogether different problem: the rebound.

“Every business in town is looking for people,” she says in the documentary. “It’s not just little clerk jobs. There’s a lot of jobs out there that aren’t filled now.”

Filmmaker Atman Mehta says that the rapid expansion of cruise tourism puts Sitka into its own category.

“I think that while there are broad implications,” Mehta explained, “I think Sitka is unique in a way because of the kind of rise in Sitka is going to be much quicker than other places.”

“Preparation,” is one of two films that filmmakers Mehta and Ellen Frankenstein have offered online. The other is called “Benefits and Impacts.”

Frankenstein is the CEO of Sitka-based ArtChange, Inc., which is producing “Cruise Boom.” In addition to covering main street, they’ve been to municipal planning meetings, toured Sitka’s cruise facility, and visited some of the popular nonprofit venues for cruise tourism in Sitka.

Frankenstein feels that Sitkans in the front lines are rising to the challenge.

“It’s been really amazing to go behind the scenes,” said Frankenstein. “Both of us have no experience in the tourism world. And there’s a lot of thinking going on. A lot of hard work and a lot of collaboration that’s really impressive.”

A woman sitting on rocks at the shore
In “Cruise Boom,” Sitka Sound Science Center director Lisa Busch says the community’s nonprofit tourist venues are collaborating on summer staffing, housing, and training. (ArtChange, Inc., image capture)

There’s also a lot of uncertainty in both short films — and a lot of worry. In one clip, Sitka Sound Science Center Director Lisa Busch worries about whether the community is prepared for what’s coming.

“I’m worried about how we’re going to get this all done in time, and the worst case scenario is that we’re not ready, and the experience is not good,” she says in the documentary. “The best case scenario is this remains a wonderful visitor destination and a great community to live in.”

Mehta believes the anxiety felt by Busch and others is justified, based on what has happened elsewhere in the world where cruising has shouldered its way in.

“What often happened in other cruise destinations is that when there is such a rise in tourism, is that you see generic stores selling jewelry and trinkets — stores which are often owned by either cruise companies or other very powerful and rich institutions,” Mehta said. “They tend to show up and price out local businesses and local residents. They drive rents up and property prices up. And I think it’s important to ensure not only that the flavor of town doesn’t change, but also that Sitka doesn’t become sort of a hyper-seasonal economy, in which most of the businesses cater only to tourists. I think it’s going to be important for town to avoid that.”

Mehta cautions that the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how volatile the cruise industry is, and that becoming too dependent on the cruise sector could prove devastating if companies chose to one day alter their routes and bypass Sitka altogether.

The producers say that they’ll be filming “Cruise Boom” throughout the summer in Sitka, with a premiere screening  sometime in the late fall.

KCAW - Sitka

KCAW is our partner station in Sitka. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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