Cruise ships calling in Juneau, Alaska, could begin paying a $7 per-passenger head tax in 1997.

This October, the 30,000 residents of Juneau will vote on whether to impose the fee, which would bring in an estimated $3 million annually.

The issue was brought to ballot by the Juneau Values Responsible Tourism (AVRT), a group composed of area businesses and private residents which maintains that Juneau's infrastructure has been severely taxed by the recent boom in cruise tourism in Alaska's capital.

Similar efforts to levy cruise-passenger fees in Sitka and Ketchikan were struck down this year.

Growing Numbers

According to one AVRT leader, Judy Crondahl, Juneau citizens have paid taxes to subsidize facilities and services used by cruise passengers, "and we don't get any payback." She added that the group consists of local residents and merchants "who have perceived that tourism has grown out of proportion."

Estimated figures show that Juneau will have hosted more than 450,000 cruise passengers by the end of the 1996 season, up 20 percent over 1995 figures.

To place the measure on the ballot, the group collected over 3,000 petition signatures, hundreds more than what was needed, noted Crondahl.

However, this grassroots effort has caused a rift between area businesses and residents.

A poll conducted by the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau revealed that 95 of the 114 respondents - including merchants, hoteliers and tour operators - oppose the tax, according to the C&VB's President and CEO Susan Bell.

"We recognize that the tax does not address the issues that residents are really concerned about, and we don't feel it's appropriate to target just one sector such as the cruise industry," she noted.

The Alaska Visitors Association has publicly opposed the tax, she added.

However, levying the fee could backfire if cruise operators decide to bypass Juneau. Cruise lines argue they already pay millions of dollars in docking charges and passengers pay sales tax.

"The docking fees go straight back to pay for the docks and visitors can bypass the sales tax if they send their purchases directly home," said Crondahl.

As for the possibility of skipping Juneau, Crondahl noted, "Southeast Alaska is a very popular cruise destination and Juneau is a premier port call. They've (operators) used this blackmail in the past..."

An economic study conducted by the city shows that cruise ship visitors, including crew members, spent about $40 million in Juneau in 1994. It also found that during the peak tourism period that same year, the visitors industry created approximately 1,800 jobs, accounting for a $24 million payroll.