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My Turn: Juneauites, just think of them as 'Cruise $hips'

Posted: May 2, 2012 - 12:00am

The way I see it, Juneau has two seasons — studded tire season and tourist season. Watching the downtown merchants and cruise dock employees make ready the port for a summer of opportunities is something worth noting. With the arrival of the first ship of the season mooring at 1 p.m. tomorrow, this annual opening day event should be celebrated by all Juneauites. Being a big ship enthusiast myself, I’ve always thought the waterfront Juneau appears a bit bare absent the silhouettes of the ships of summer. I hope I espouse the majority opinion in support of this vitally critical economic driver for Juneau, however, I know there is a significant multitude who mentally equate visiting guests as modern day lepers. Refusing to venture into the downtown corridor on “five-ship days,” some locals would argue our community is better served without the tourist industry altogether. I have talked with several who have declared they haven’t been on South Franklin Street from May to September since 1978 when the first cruise ship arrived. Explaining why Juneau should, and must, embrace this industry is much like me s’plaining why baseball, hands down, is the best spectator sport. If I have to explain reasons why this is true, you probably won’t understand it anyway.

This year the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau anticipates 930,000 guests to cross the gangway from 38 visiting vessels. This is up 5 percent from 2011 but down from the high-water mark of 1.03 million passengers in 2008. According to a McDowell Group study, the average cruise tourist will buy $180 of taxable goods in Juneau, including tours, t-shirts, jewelry and trips up the Mt Roberts Tram. In addition to the tourists, 25,000 ship’s crew will infuse an additional $300 per crewmember into the Juneau economy, most likely at Costco, Fred Meyer, Walmart and Nugget Mall. The fact that working crewmembers spend more than paying customers should not be a surprise, as passengers are budgeting for their entire vacation with potential port calls in Ketchikan, Sitka, Hoonah and Skagway. Juneau’s Egan Drive is the equivalent to Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive when it comes to retail opportunity in the Panhandle. Local merchants would be well advised to embrace the passengers departing Raul’s Crew Shuttle on its scheduled van route throughout the valley.

These sales numbers equate to around $176 million, from which CBJ collects $9 million in taxes (about 11 percent of their annual operating expenses) or nearly 25 percent of all sales tax collected. CBJ cannot provide the services to its citizens without fully and completely embracing the tourist industry. With all the undeserved complaints directed at Public Works this studded tire season, try providing snow removal with a CBJ budget decreased by millions of dollars. Seasonal direct and indirect employment supporting Juneau tourism is estimated to be 2,730 positions, providing an additional $95 million of local payroll. I generally love my children and want them around as long as possible. Without seasonal work created by tourism, my kids would be hard-pressed to find jobs in a community which is essentially a three-legged stool of government, tourism and resource extraction (mining, fishing and maybe timber). Tourism and the cruise industry provide an ideal renewable economic sector that should be embraced and sustainably grown.

The “Alaskan” brand continues to garnish worldwide curiosity thanks in part to Alaskan reality shows. The cruise industry estimates that 24 percent of Alaskan cruise travelers have previously taken an Alaskan cruise and 38 percent are planning to return to Alaska in the next five years. This means tourism sustainability requires all Juneauites to become ambassadors to the cause. It is not enough to tolerate visiting guests — maybe a prerequisite to receiving a PFD should be mandatory “customer service training” for Southeast Alaskans (waived for fishermen and miners).

Some have argued that CBJ should not support the cruise industry with CBJ funding — which is actually the case. As an “enterprise board,” Docks & Harbors does not receive CBJ tax revenues and, for argument purpose, if the entire department were dissolved, CBJ would incur an additional $300,000 shortfall — for the services Docks & Harbors pays to CBJ for services it receives. The point being, the downtown city docks are funded solely and exclusively from revenues generated from the cruise industry.

The new docks project (16B) is not be constructed at the expense of the school district, city snow removal or homeless initiatives. The State’s Commercial Passenger Vessel Excise Tax (aka Head Tax) collects $34.50 per cruise passenger, of which $5 per passenger is returned to CBJ. CBJ levies two passenger fees — a $3 per passenger “Port Development Fee” and a $5 per passenger “Marine Passenger Fee.” Some of these fees are used to defray costs associated with the cruise industry (security, policing, crossing guards, trash removal, etc) but most are used for recapitalization of the infrastructure necessary to have a sustainable cruise ship industry. The bottom line is that State and CBJ government will take in another $40 million in cruise ship head taxes and fees, thanks to the industry. The 16B floating docks are critical infrastructure to ensure Juneau remains competitive and that opportunity exists into future for the valuable and essential tourist industry.

Play ball, come downtown and greet the visitors. If for nothing else, living here provides the opportunity to invite your Uncle Leo (everyone has a crazy Uncle Leo or crazy Aunt Leonora) up to visit Alaska. Pick them up at the cruise dock and spend 8-hours driving them around the sites and send them on their way — guilt free, forced family fun day for pennies on the dollar and something to talk about at dinner. Or, maybe, start looking at the party of five crossing Franklin Street as $900 of local and tax revenue and not the inconvenience of having to wait 45 seconds to get to your next appointment.

• Uchytil is Juneau’s port director

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