As Glacier Bay tourism grows, so does town of Gustavus

400,000 people visit the national park annually, most by cruise ship

Posted: Sunday, September 17, 2006

Fourteen additional cruise ships will be allowed in Glacier Bay National Park, starting next summer, according to park Superintendent Tomie Lee.

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Most of the 400,000 people who visit the park annually come by cruise ship.

Still, only two cruise ships are allowed in the bay at the same time, Lee said.

Twenty-five ships are allowed in Glacier Bay during the peak season. There is also an area designated for canoes and kayaks, Lee said.

Gustavus Vice Mayor Wayne Howell said the area gets busy in spring, but Lee said the traffic locally doesn't compare with parks down south. Lee recalled working at Pinnacles National Monument near Monterey, Calif. On weekends and holidays, vehicles would line up outside the parking lot waiting for a space to open up, she said.

A ferry arrives in Gustavus twice a month during the peak season, but it isn't able to unload any cars - the dock isn't suitable for vehicles to roll off, Lee said. Tourist traffic is also limited because Gustavus is not connected to the state road system.

Tourist access to Glacier Bay has been limited by both its geography and by park policy for more than a quarter of a century.

"Since 1979, in June, July and August, (Glacier Bay has) limited the number of vessels that can come into the park," Lee said. During the 92-day period, there can never be more than two cruise ships in the bay, and daily no more than three tour vessels are permitted.

Even people who live in Gustavus have to get a permit, with only 25 private vessels allowed per day, she said.

Howell said gateway communities have a set of inherent problems with national parks where decisions are made by federal officials. The phasing out of commercial fishing in the bay was controversial, and there are residents who don't like the restrictions on their use of the of the bay.

But most of the residents in the community of less than 500, are either employed by the park or work in the tourism industry.

"The fact is, Glacier Bay National Park fuels the economy of Gustavus," Howell said, adding that park rangers often provide police services for the town until state troopers arrive, he said.

Gustavus incorporated 2 1/2 years ago in part to build a dock for the community. To raise money, the city levied a 2 percent sales tax and a 4 percent lodging tax, Howell said. The city wants to open a new dock in the spring at the Salmon River for small boats. Meanwhile, the park service has committed $1.2 million to help build the city's new main dock.

"You can wrestle over issues that aren't that big, but are emotional," Howell said of gateway communities' relationships with national parks. "Or you can look at the big picture."

• Tony Carroll can be reached at

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