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

The first year of a new passenger fee charged on cruise ship visitors netted the Petersburg borough at least 38,000 dollars. And while it’s a far cry from the millions raised from head taxes in larger communities, the money could help pay for improvements for the ships that stop in Alaska’s Little Norway.

The municipality started collecting a five dollar per passenger fee from ships docking in Petersburg harbors 2019. It’s based on a similar charge in Juneau.

The borough’s finance director Jody Tow reported to the assembly that the amount collected in the first year is at least 38,000 dollars.

“We only budgeted 25,000, so it’s a little more than we thought we would bring in,” Tow told the assembly. “Collection went smoothly, especially for it being our first year. There’s one cruise line that we haven’t made contact with that’s not getting back to us about the fee, but I’m hopeful that we will be in touch with them soon.”

Tow said that company made 13 port calls this summer and it could be paying another 11,000 dollars to the borough if those ships were filled to capacity. That money goes into a special revenue fund and the assembly would approve spending from that fund during the annual budget process. It’s meant to benefit the passengers who stop in Petersburg on cruise ships.

“Juneau uses it for cross walk guards and dock repairs and police foot patrol among other things, chamber of commerce, restrooms, public restrooms, that’s been a hot topic in our community,” Tow said.

The borough has sent a survey to cruise lines about ways that money could be spent to help their passengers. It’s also a topic of discussion amongst a visitor industry working group that was formed in Petersburg last year.

During a recent radio call in show, assembly member Jeff Meucci said he is pleasantly surprised with the money collected in the first year.

“That’s a big win for us,” Meucci said. “That’s just money coming in. I’m sure there’s going be all kinds of things that people would like to spend it on but I just want to know if the marine passenger fee is working and if we need to change some things, tweak it a little bit.”

The visitor industry working group is fine tuning its recommendations for maintaining a balance between the quality of life in Petersburg and the tourism economy.

Meucci is hoping that work is wrapped up by late November or early December and wants borough representatives to meet with the cruise industry before next season.

“I don’t think we should enter another visitor industry year without having some concrete definitions of what’s acceptable in the Petersburg borough,” Meucci said. “Another summer of people dumping in the Petersburg borough is unacceptable to me. I would like to get it done and have it being chatted about this winter with those folks.”

The group has talked about ideas like better signs and sidewalk markings for visitors walking on Sing Lee Alley and main street, designated drop off and pick up spots for cruise ship shuttles and improved communication between the industry and community. Other possibilities are a covered staging area for passengers to stay out of the rain and a pump out station for cruise ship waste water.

Local officials and residents sounded the alarm this summer with several instances of waste water dumping, one in the harbor and one near LeConte Bay. And the working group has raised the possibility of petitioning the federal government for a no-discharge zone in borough waters.

Harbor master Glorianne Wollen told that group during a meeting this month that the issue has prompted cruise companies to ask to for more tie up time at the community’s vehicle-accessible drive down float in South Harbor.

“Because that’s the only place the water and sewer (department) can come down and take gray water,” Wollen explained. “So be careful what you ask for is what I’ve explained to a lot of people because now it is going to be used (a) majority of the tour ship traffic will be at that location.”

That drive down float is also a popular summer loading spot for Petersburg’s active fishing fleets.

The community’s lack of a deep water port limits it from getting the largest vessels with thousands of passengers. But ships with several hundred passengers are calling here. Last year Viking Cruises reached out about stopping here with ships of up to 900. Next year the Hurtigruten ship Roald Amundsen plans stops here with capacity of just over 500 passengers.

Petersburg’s visitor group reports a range of port calls over the past few decades – from a high of 214 in 2002 to a low of 65 in 2011. This past year the community saw 146 cruise ship stops, including somewhat larger vessels that anchored outside of the harbors and used smaller boats to shuttle passengers into Petersburg.