Royal Caribbean International’s Ovation of the Seas (Claire Stremple)

The biggest cruise ship to sail Alaskan waters arrived in Skagway Monday morning. It’s part of trend toward even larger cruise ships called mega ships. Demand for Alaskan cruises is up, but now the question for small Southeast communities is how many visitors they can handle.

After ports of call in Sitka and Juneau, the Royal Caribbean International’s Ovation of the Seas  docked in Skagway’s harbor Monday morning. She is visibly several stories higher than Celebrity Cruise’s Millennium vessel and towers over the 7 Seas Mariner.

The Ovation is the biggest ship to dock in Skagway.

“It was pretty hectic there for a little bit,” said Port Manager Stuart Stevens. He says mega ships come with some challenges.

“Everything is bigger. The lines are bigger , it’s heavier. Of course fitting them onto the berth itself is a little trickier…  It’s just more unwieldy, too. If the wind was blowing they might have a harder time.”

But the benefit is more people get to enjoy Skagway…and boost the local economy while they do it. Mark Lonis is out on the dock before 8 a.m. to collect passengers for the Skagway Streetcar tour. He cranes his neck to take in the ship.

“Full as our town is right now with all the summer seasonals in the town, it holds double what our town has as a population and that’s pretty mind blowing,” he said.

As with every new ship to arrive in Skagway, the city sent a delegation to welcome the vessel. Security machines beep as they pass through checkpoints to enter the vessel.

A delegation from Skagway welcomes the Ovation of the Seas with Captain Henrik Loy. (Claire Stremple)

Interim Manager Tom Healy presented Captain Henrik Loy with a plaque from the city. Representatives from White Pass, fire and police departments, the Skagway traditional Council, and The Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park exchanged tokens with the ship as well. Captain Loy has been sailing in Alaska for years. He says the Ovation is the biggest cruise ship sailing in Pacific waters.

“With a ship like this I think this is ideal for this region with all our indoor areas and the stability… And she fits everywhere. So… perfect,” he said.

White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad own the dock. They’ve known the Ovation was coming for a couple of years and had time to build out the dock to accommodate the extra length of the 1,100 foot ship. Tyler Rose directs strategic planning at White Pass.

“It just shows what a hot market Alaska is and a whole and then Skagway and our ability to accommodate those larger ships. The trend that we’re seeing is bigger ships coming up and so that requires the infrastructure to handle them,” he said.

He sees potential in larger ships. White Pass expanded the railroad dock with a floating component in 2013, additional mooring in 2016, and two more mooring dolphins this year. Those are so that the dock can hold not one but two “post-panamax vessels”—that is, ships of about the size of the Ovation. That happens when the Norwegian Joy and Bliss both come into port at the same time.

At a recent community work session, some Skagway residents suggested the community has reached its upper limit of passengers. They want to offer nice experiences to travelers and maintain quality of life for residents.

Rose says there are challenges, but he doesn’t see that upper limit in Skagway yet.

“Yeah, it’s just the volume of passengers, the infrastructure to be put into place, and I think the town has historically adapted really well to that and I think we’ll do so in the future,” he said.

A cruise ship passenger snaps a photo by one of White Pass and Yukon Route’s trains. (Claire Stremple)

The Boardwalks in the historic district are busy this morning, but human traffic is flowing smoothly. Tom and Susan Ballard have come to Alaska twice and they’ve been on over a dozen cruises. They’re are among the nearly 5,000 passengers that fit onboard the Ovation of the Seas. They say this one is different.

“It’s big and more classy than the others have been,” the Ballards said. “The shops are more upscale. Higher class.”

Hundreds of feet below the towering cruise ship, a tern dives in the harbor and a stream of tourists snap pictures and filter into town.