Three cruise ships dock in downtown Juneau July 14, at the height of the tourist season (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

Three cruise ships dock in downtown Juneau July 14, at the height of the tourist season. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

Alaska’s cruise industry is on track to hit the magic million-passenger mark this year.

Industry leader John Binkley said that many passengers are projected to sail to the 49th state by the end of the season. That will be the first time in half-a-dozen years.

Binkley, president of Cruise Lines International Association Alaska, said the number is about 2 percent higher than last year.

“Worldwide, it’s about a 8 percent annual growth. … So we see a smaller percentage, but we’re kind of moving along with the trend in the industry,” he said.

The trade group said Alaska-bound ships used to carry about 8 percent of the worldwide cruise market. That’s almost double the current amount.

Binkley said global competition is the reason for the change.

He said the fastest-growing market is in Asia, which is attracting new customers, especially from China. He said that could help Alaska in the long run.

“Once that capacity and that growth is seen in Asia, then the hope is that in later years it will be a source for cruise passengers coming to Alaska,” Binkley said.

“So, initially competition. Later, a market that will increase more dramatically visitors to Alaska,” he added.

He said anecdotal evidence and market research show many new customers in the Asian market also want to cruise to Alaska.

Other factors could affect the state’s cruise industry in the coming years. One is an improved marine link.

“With the Panama Canal expanding in size, larger vessels can now move from the Atlantic, for example the Caribbean trade in the wintertime, through the Panama Canal into the Pacific and up to Alaska for the summer trade,” he said.

Binkley said overseas terrorism is another factor. He said that could make more Americans want to travel closer to home.