Skagway braces for a million cruise ship passengers this summer

There are few places in the world like Skagway, Alaska. It's a remote town of about a thousand year-round residents, but built to serve several thousand daily visitors through half the year.

'What we're trying to work on here now is to figure out what our saturation levels are,' mayor says

Cruise ship season kicked off this week in Skagway, Alaska, with the arrival of the first ship on Monday and another a few days later. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

There are few places in the world like Skagway, Alaska.

It's a remote town of about 1,000 year-round residents, but built to serve several thousand daily visitors through half the year.

"Skagway is the eighteenth most visited cruise ship port in the world," said Mayor Andrew Cremata. "When you do the math on that, we have to support a town of 20,000 people. So it's pretty complex process here."

The cruise ship season officially kicked off in Skagway on Monday, with the arrival of the first big, white behemoth — the 3,080-passenger Ruby Princess. It was followed a few days later by a similar mega-ship.

A steady parade of monstrous floating hotels will continue for the next five months, each one disgorging a stampede of daytrippers into Skagway's small downtown. Streets are packed with pedestrians for a few afternoon hours, before emptying out when it's dinnertime back on board.

'What we're trying to work on here now is to figure out what our saturation levels are,' says Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

The number of visiting cruise ship passengers has been steadily increasing over the years, and this summer the town could hit a new record.

"It's going to be a busy season," Cremata said. "We should have somewhere around a million passengers off the cruise ships this year — just passengers, not including crew."

He said the town's economy is about 99 per cent cruise ship industry.

That kind of visitor traffic can pose some challenges to the town's infrastructure and Cremata said it's something the town council is thinking about more and more. 

The number of cruise ship passengers visiting Skagway has been steadily increasing. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

"On some of these cruise ship days, the impact is such that we have to look at doing some upgrades. But we can't look to the short term, because it's estimated that in 10 years there'll be another 50 per cent increase in passengers," he said.

"So what we're trying to work on here now is to figure out what our saturation levels are."

Yukon not that interested

Some work has already been done by a cruise ship on one of the docks it owns in Skagway, to accommodate more ships and bigger ships.

We're trying to attract companies that are selling the Yukon first.- Robin Anderson, Tourism Yukon

Cremata said the town also needs tourism infrastructure that helps get cruise ship passengers out of the downtown core, on different day trips and tours.

One popular trip is into Yukon — a relatively short and scenic bus or train ride through the White Pass to the town of Carcross. 

Many visitors to Skagway take a side trip to Carcross, Yukon. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

But Yukon is not exactly keen on courting more of those cruise ship visitors, for the same reason — too much of a good thing is not necessarily good.

Robin Anderson of Tourism Yukon said the territory is happy to welcome visitors from Skagway cruise ships, but it's "not a market that we're actively promoting."

"We're focused on our efforts around sustainability, and ensuring that the tourism industry doesn't negatively impact Yukoners."

Anderson said Yukon is more interested in a "higher-yield client."

"Our strategy is to invest in attracting visitors who come here for multiple days, and who are likely to spend more when they come," he said.

"We have very little influence on those cruise ship companies. They're really buying an Alaskan experience with a Yukon add-on. So we're trying to attract companies that are selling the Yukon first."

Written by Paul Tukker, based on reporting by Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada


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