On the morning of Jan. 17, Santa Rosalia, Mexico, saw its ship come in.
The cruise ship MV Astoria anchored just offshore as part of Cruise and Maritime Voyages’ 11-day “Treasures of the Sea of Cortez” itinerary, which departed from Puerto Peñasco. The first ship to dock at Santa Rosalia in 10 years, the Astoria tendered 550 passengers to the mining and fishing town with a population of 15,000.
The arrival represented a new economic opportunity on the horizon for the community: tourism.
Seizing it, the town spent months diligently planning. At the dock, musicians and performers welcomed passengers as they walked ashore. Volunteers staffed information stands around the city, handing out maps and guiding people to the attractions, including a church said to have been designed by Gustav Eiffel.
Welcoming economic opportunity
In the park, a farmers market was filled with local artisans selling their creations to the arriving tourists. Victor Manuel Verdugo Garcia was among the vendors, selling wine he had made from local fruit. He said his eyes grew misty as he saw the first tourists come ashore.
Because it’s promoting this little town and I’m very proud,” Verdugo Garcia said.
His town, for many people on the cruise, was one of the gems of the itinerary, offering a peek at life in a seaside port not overrun with commercial tourism.
But questions loom about what the future might hold for the seven ports on the itinerary. After the inaugural three sailings in January, Cruise and Maritime Voyages has not announced whether it will return to Puerto Peñasco next year. The city, also known as Rocky Point, doesn’t have a cruise terminal.
Yet Santa Rosalia’s hope that this is the beginning of something special is shared by other ports on the itinerary, including Guaymas, population 170,000. Its mayor, Sara Valle Dessens, was among the dignitaries welcoming the Astoria when it arrived in the Sonoran port. She said cruises and the tourists they bring create economic opportunities for the city.
Jorge Vidal Ahumada, Sonora’s secretary of economy, estimated the cruise from Puerto Peñasco could bring $5 million to local economies as the ship purchases gas in the ports and passengers buy food and souvenirs in the towns.
“For us, it is very important because, for us, it is very new tourism that we are trying to get and that we have to fight a lot to have it here,” Ahumada said.
The impact of cruise ships
Yet, the cruise industry has been under fire lately for issues ranging from environmental concerns to the over-tourism it brings to some ports.
Juneau, Alaska, first started welcoming the cruise passengers in 1966 but the industry really took off in 2008 when the southeastern Alaskan town received 1 million passengers, according to Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon.
“That was a lot of people for a town of 32,000,” Weldon said.
The visitors bring significant revenue to an area that is still emerging from the recession. Weldon estimates the city makes about $8 million in sales tax revenue from the visitors. It also brings in tax revenue, as the city charges $13 for each cruise passenger.
With 1.3 million passengers in 2019, Weldon said, that figure sounds wonderful until you realize that the money is not profit but rather funds improvements to accommodate visitors.
“You can imagine the strain it puts on our infrastructure,” she said.
Roads and airports are jammed as tour buses and floatplanes whisk visitors on excursions. There’s congestion on the water from kayakers and whale watching tours. The city’s sewer, water, and electrical systems have to be able to handle the increased demand.
Then there’s the impact to Juneau’s sense of community as visitors explore and wander into historic neighborhoods. At first, Weldon, said it’s fun to see people admiring your garden, but it can get old after a while.
“You no longer feel like you are in a neighborhood. You feel like you are on display,” she said.
There are even health-care ramifications. Weldon said 6% of hospital revenue can be attributed to cruise ship passengers.
Last fall, Weldon commissioned a task force to study the strains on city resources as well as the current long-range plan for the waterfront. The committee is scheduled to report back this spring on whether that plan is adequate.
As Weldon waits for the outcome of that study, she has advice to other communities based on her community’s experience with the cruise industry.
“Have a plan for infrastructure and keep control locally,” she said.
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