The summer tourism season in Skagway is over with the majority of businesses in the historic town closed for the season. Each year hundreds of thousands of cruise ship passengers, RVers and tourists from far and wide flock to the Gateway of the Klondike for a unique taste of history and adventure.
A long summer season of giving almost a million visitors the Alaska experience, suggests that Skagway residents are breathing a collective sigh of relief. And some are, but many are sad to see the season, and those paychecks, come to an end.
“It’s bittersweet, someone asked me the other day and I said I could use another couple months because it always happens so fast. We like what we do so it’s hard to see it end.”
That’s Cris Siegel. He and his wife own and operate Skagway Float Tours and Frontier Excursions. Between the two businesses, he can provide a little something for everyone from hiking and rafting to van trips and train rides.
Siegel says he doesn’t have his bottom line figured out just yet, but was happy with how the season went and the guides, returning and new, that worked for him. The two businesses employ about 20 people.
“Every year is different but lately we’ve been lucky to get really good staff,” he says. “Last year our partner with Frontier Excursions passed away and he was really good at collecting great guides and creating the fun part of our operation. So, we hope that can keep the returning guides like he did.”
Siegel started the rafting business in 1997 and bought Frontier Excursions in 2009. He says preparation for summer 2016 has already begun. And one struggle he’s already thinking about , he says, is finding housing for his employees.
“Being here for 20 years, I’ve seen a transition of people coming up here and camping and living in Hanousek Park or in the woods or wherever they can get a tent site, but nowadays people come expecting housing so there’s been sort of a transition. It’s always a struggle. I go into every year thinking I don’t have enough housing.”
Compared to the last couple, this summer was better overall weather-wise. He says last year the rain, highway and river closures hurt the business. However, he was quick to add that businesses took a big hit on the day this August when three cruise ships were unable to port due to high winds.
“Every year you have to kind of account for some big events like that,” Siegel offers.
Lauren Taylor is the gift shop manager for White Pass and says that, yes, she’s feeling relieved that the summer is over.
“But there’s always that second where you take that breather and realize I have so much to do for next year, so then you really have start planning and mapping out everything you have to do over the wintertime,” she says.
Taylor, who has been with the company for eight years, says that weather plays a big part in retail sales. When it’s a bluebird day outside, most visitors want to be outdoors enjoying the sun, not picking out T-shirts and key chains inside. But White Pass train passengers want to take the scenic ride up the mountain on nice days. So, the company has visitors covered, rain or shine, says Tyler Rose. He’s the executive director of human resources and strategic planning for White Pass.
“A good weather day for some businesses kind of varies for others but overall good weather helps because it draws people to the port and we go from there,” Rose says. “We obviously love our visitors off the ships and from up the road, but we also like to see the friendly faces of locals throughout Southeast.”
Cody Jennings is the new tourism director in Skagway. She says she picked a great summer to start the position.
“We work so hard in the summer, so many hours, so it really is like a deep breathe, we can slow down a little bit, take stock of what’s going on and where we’re going so that nice to just go back and reflect,” she says.
Jennings says one of her goals is to put a face to Skagway with more photos of the scenery and the people on the bureau’s website and social media pages. This year wasn’t without its hurdles, but she says, all in all it was a successful, sunny summer.
“The vibe in town was everyone was pretty happy. There were no major incidents like there were previous year when the ferry float sank or we had a section of the highway, a slide come down; different things like that. We didn’t have any of those unique events throughout the year so all in all that was positive.”
Jennings says the visitor’s bureau is also working toward promoting off-season tourism, starting with the shoulder seasons and working up to winter activities and events. Of course for many, the area is already a winter destination, especially for snowmachiners and skiers.
The fall festival, a more mellow type of Skagway celebration, takes place from Oct. 16-18. The White Pass Santa Train chugs through town in mid-December.