Tourists walk from the Celebrity Solstice towards town. (Emily Files)

Tourists walk from the first cruise ship in Skagway’s 2015 season, the Celebrity Solstice.

Skagway residents have about two more weeks of quiet before the cruise ship season begins. The overall number of ships and potential passengers is slightly down compared to last year. But the town of less than 1,000 year-round residents still expects about 800,000 cruise ship tourists. If you add independent travelers to that, the Gateway to the Klondike expects nearly one million visitors this summer.

The tourism rush begins about a week earlier this year. In 2015, the first ship arrived on May 5. But this year, the 1,000-passenger Crystal Serenity will tie up to the railroad dock April 29. From then until late September, 29 ships are expected to make 389 port calls.

“We dropped from 402 port calls to 389 [port calls,]” said Skagway Tourism Director Cody Jennings. “But what’s making up that difference is basically the size of the ships, we’re getting a few larger ships in here.”

In fact, the largest ship to sail Alaska waters will dock in Skagway for the first time this summer. The Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas carries an average of about 3,200 passengers, but is able to hold more than 4,000 at maximum capacity.

Other new ships this year are the Radisson Seven Seas Mariner, the Ponant Yacht Cruises Le Soleal, Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam, and Crystal Cruise’s Crystal Serenity.

Skagway will see much heavier traffic Tuesday through Thursday. Sometimes as many as five ships will fill the town’s waterfront, with the larger vessels at the railroad, Broadway and ore terminal docks and smaller ones at the ferry dock.

Jennings says the outlook for independent travelers is also expected to be similar to last year’s numbers. Skagway expects about 125,000 non-cruise-ship visitors.

“Obviously we’re watching closely to see how the Canadian dollar impacts us,” Jennings said. “But to date we haven’t seen much impact. And then of course, lower fuel prices, that often helps us for highway traffic. But then the flip side of that is reduced service on the Alaska Marine Highway.”

One tour business that primarily caters to cruise ship visitors is planning to test the independent traveler market this year. Beyond Skagway Tours offers a range of day trips for cruise ship passengers. But starting in September, they’ll offer three-to-five-day Golden Circle van trips, taking customers from Skagway, to Whitehorse, to Haines, and the scenic places in between.

“Nobody else was doing it, that I know of,” said Beyond Skagway owner Becky Mull.

Mull hopes the Golden Circle tour will help extend its season past the last ship day.

“When you’re dealing with the cruise ship people, there’s such a huge number of them coming in, that it wasn’t hard to start the business for the cruise ship base. But it’s a little harder to tap into [the independent traveler market.]”

Tourism director Jennings noted a few other businesses that are expanding or changing this summer. The Pizza Station and Morning Wood Hotel are expanding to add more rooms and a new bar. Pescaritos restaurant is changing management and becoming The Mermaid Garden. And, Skagway will have a brand new museum, Jeff Smith’s Parlor, which opens April 30.

As seasonal workers start to arrive in town and businesses open their doors, Jennings says she’s excited to see Skagway ‘come to life’ this summer.