Skagway to host largest cruise ship to sail Alaska waters

Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas is scheduled to dock in Skagway this summer.  It’s the largest cruise ship to land in the Gateway to the Klondike by about 1,000 passengers, and largest to ever cruise Alaska waters. The vessel will also make port calls in Juneau and sail the Inside Passage and Tracy Arm.

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The Explorer of the Seas will dock in Skagway this summer. Capable of hauling 4,000 passengers, it’s the largest ship Skagway, or Alaska for that matter, has seen. (Photo courtesy of “Eddie”, Flickr Creative Commons)
The Explorer of the Seas will dock in Skagway this summer. Capable of hauling 4,000 passengers, it’s the largest ship Skagway, or Alaska for that matter, has seen. (Photo courtesy of “Eddie”, Flickr Creative Commons)

At over 1,000 feet long and 160 feet wide, the mammoth cruise ship is on Skagway’s roster this summer and next. With nearly 4,000 passengers onboard, it’ll be a modern-day stampede on May 23, the first day the ship arrives in port.

The Explorer of the Seas boasts 15 decks, 10 pools, bars, shops, restaurants, even a rock wall.

Blaine Mero works at the Skagway Chamber of Commerce and is a 25-year resident. He said the larger ship will be a boon to Skagway’s economy, but with it comes challenges.

“I think it’s a really good thing, if they spread it out more evenly through the week I think it will help every business to function better and I think sales will be stronger that way,” he said. “It’s hard when you compound the problem by adding 10, 000 – 12,000 people a day. It’s a little too congested.”

Having thousands of visitors in town at once isn’t new. Mero says a few times a week during the summer, Skagway is flooded with 10,000 people jostling for position at local shops, restaurants and attractions. The Explorer of the Seas is scheduled for every Monday in Skagway from the end of May through September. On its first day in town, it will share the port with three other ships, bringing in a total of around 7,500 passengers along with about 2,000 crew members.

“You know, when you’ve got that many people within an eight-block radius where the shopping is all done and people convene for eating, it’s a lot of people in a small space,” said Mero.

But, Mero said, Skagway business owners adjust as needed and continue each season to provide a one-of-a-kind experience. For the most part, he says, residents are thankful for the tourists because it’s how the majority of them make their living.

Up until now, the biggest ship was the Ruby Princess, which holds just over 3,000 passengers.The municipality is currently in the process of deciding what to do with $7 million in state money that was allotted for the now-stalled Gateway Project. A floating dock that could support even larger ships is on the wish list for that money.

Tyler Rose works for the community’s biggest tourist attraction, White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. He says that while cruise lines book their own routes, communities try and recruit ships that they think will be beneficial. Rose says the trend is leaning more toward these larger vessels.

“The cruise industry is a world-wide market and these are mobile assets, and so where they put them is important,” Rose said. “We do our best to attract those ships to our port here in Skagway.”

Rose said that White Pass has made improvements and upgrades at the port to house the larger ship.

“We’re extending a mooring dolphin off of the railroad dock to accommodate, as well as some bollard upgrades and a few other minor improvements to the railroad dock structure,” said Rose.

As for Skagway’s capacity during the really busy days, Rose said the train ride up to White Pass offers a “relief valve” for congestion, as do the myriad of other excursions that take guests out of town.

“As far as overall capacity, I think that everyone is looking toward growth. I don’t know what the limit is,” Rose said. “Folks probably would have said 20 years ago that we were close to capacity. There’s still opportunity for growth if we’re able to work as a community towards that.”

The Explorer of the Seas makes its debut in Skagway on May 23. The first cruise ship, the Crystal Serenity, arrives on April 29.