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Alaska yens to capture more foreigners.

The migration appeared to begin a bit earlier than usual this year. As sure as the grass began to turn green and flocks of gesse arrived in spring, so did the tourists with their luggage, cameras, binoculars and lists of attractions to visit.

The cruise-ship operators, restaurant and gift shop owners, hotel managers and private flying services were prepared for the early migration. Cruise-line operators added a week to the beginning and the end of their operating seasons, and Alaska businesses are prepared to reap the benefits of the "shoulder season."

Each year, hundreds of thousands of tourists come from all parts of the world: the Lower 48, Germany, Australia and Japan, among numerous other locations. More than 500,000 visitors flock to Alaska each year, pumping millions of dollars into the economy and creating thousands of jobs.

In 1989, 19,000 people were directly employed in the tourism industry, according to the Alaska Division of Tourism. The visitors industry is also credited with creating 38,000 additional jobs statewide. In 1991, tourism in Alaska is expected to support 20,000 jobs.

According to state figures, tourism is the third largest industry in Alaska, contributing approximately $500 million a year to the economy. In 1990, Alaska hosted 820,000 visitors, 630,000 of those during the summer season. This was a 12.5 percent increase over the 1989 summar season, which saw approximately 560,000 visitors. The total for all seasons in 1989 was 750,000 travelers.

Although the mainstay of Alaska tourism is the domestic visitor -- representing about 81 percent of summer vacation travelers -- international visitors are playing an increasingly important role in the economy. The remaining 19 percent includes Canadians (12 percent) and overseas visitors -- Europeans, Japanese and other summer vacationers.

Mary Klugherz, marketing consultant for the economic consulting firm of McDowell Group Inc. of Juneau, says although Alaska's international visitors represent a small percentage of the overall figure, they spend more than domestic tourists on a per capita basis. This, she says, makes international tourism an industry targeted for growth.

"German-speaking Europeans spend an average of $1,437 per person per trip, nearly three times the $567 average for all visitors," Klugherz notes.

High-spending habits aren't the only characteristics of international tourists valuable to Alaska businesses. "The European travelers -- for example, those from Germany, Switzerland, and Austria -- tend to take longer vacations than most other Alaska-bound travelers," Klugherz says. "They typically spend 13 nights, whereas the Americans and Japanese spend approximately 11 nights."

Overall, the Europeans made up 3.5 percent of the visitors, but accounted for 6 percent of spending, according to a 1989 McDowell Group study conducted for the Alaska Division of Tourism. The McDowell summary, "Alaska Visitor Expenditures Report," indicates that the Japanese spend an average of $658 per person per trip, 16 percent higher than the average visitor, but about the same as a visitor from the Midwest or Florida.

The European market, particularly German tourists, are like most visitors in Alaska; they come for adventure, says Karen Cowart, executive director of the Alaska Visitors Association. She adds that a lot of dollars have gone into advertising and promotions to capture potential travelers.

"The European market is a very strong market," says Cowart. "They enjoy the outdoors and adventure-related activities, including fishing and hiking."

Getting Here. Cowart and others in the tourism industry are concerned about airline accessibility to Alaska. In less than three years, the number of international passenger flights into Anchorage International Airport has shrunk from an average of 122 per week to around 50, with further cuts likely.

European airlines have eliminated stops in Anchorage on their routes to the Orient since Soviet air space has been opened to Western flights. Stops in Alaska have become unnecessary because of more direct routes over the Soviet Union and the availability of aircraft with greater fuel efficiencies and capacities.

"We'd like to visit Alaska, but how?" asks Marlies Von Stynitz, managing director of Media-Touristik, a German travel business. "Instead of the direct flights that at one time took only 11 or 12 hours from Germany to Anchorage, most travelers will have to fly more than 26 hours with several stops, and we can't do that."

Von Stynitz is a German travel operator who fell in love with Alaska after arriving for a visit this year. But he notes that because of the complicated travel arrangements involved in getting to Anchorage from Europe, the outlook on adding tours to Alaska is dismal.

Von Stynitz was one of more than 80 foreign travel planners and executives who attended the Alaska Travel Fair II held at the William Egan Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage in mid-May. The travel planners spent several days in Anchorage and were flown to other parts of the state. The familiarization trips were sponsored by Alaska's travel industry and supplemented with state money.

Horst Engel, product manager of Der Eutsches Reiseburo, is another German tour operator who would love to push tourism to Alaska. His company has been bringing Germans to the Lower 48 for many years, and he would like to expand that business to the Last Frontier.

"When the Germans think of Alaska, they think of Anchorage, Denali, Mount McKinley and Fairbanks," Engel says. "From various tours I've taken over the past few days, I've come to realize there is much more to Alaska than just those areas. The smaller or unknown parts of Alaska are wonderful and would be potential areas for vacationers to visit." Engel adds that he was particularly impressed with Glacier Bay and Skagway.

"The Germans like guided tours," Engel says. "Many German travelers like packaged tours the first time they visit a destination. Oftentimes they will follow that with a repeat visit and travel independently with no set schedule."

Engel notes that tourism in Germany continues to grow. He feels that Alaska's primary competition is countries with sun, beaches and exclusive, high-quality accommodations; Hawaii and Mexico, for example.

Different Fare. While sunshine and sandy beaches appeal to many Europeans, others are attached to Alaska by its cooler weather and activities available during the fall or winter months. Many Japanese, for instance, head to Alaska in winter to view the northern lights. The light show has been featured on Japanese television, on travel posters in the Tokyo subway and even on packaging of one of the country's most popular cigarette brands, further fanning auroraborealis fascination among the Japanese.

According to Kojiro Abe, director of the Alaska Division of Tourism's Tokyo office, aurora viewing is quickly becoming one of Japan's favorite travel attractions, possibly the No. 1 wintertime draw. He says the Japanese find the northern lights both mysterious and fantastic.

Jo Overholt, manager of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau, says Fairbanks plays host to a considerable number of Japanese visitors, many of whom arriving during the fall, winter or spring. "We get a lot of Japanese students. The cold weather fascinates them. They come to Alaska to experience the uniqueness of the state -- part of that is the cold."

In the winter of 1989-1990, tour operators brought 3,600 Japanese visitors through the Fairbanks area in search of the heavenly lights, state officials say. Last year that figure climbed to about 4,400.

Numerous businesses in the Fairbanks area have begun cashing in on the aurora as well. Pam McLaughlin, owner of the Old F.E. Co. Gold Camp, approximately 40 miles northeast of Fairbanks, says her camp hosted about 650 Japanese this past winter.

McLaughlin has even added a special building for viewing the lights called an "aurorium." "I'm expecting figures to rise this year," she says. "The aurorium will help give observers an unobstructed, pampered view of the northern lights."

McLaughlin's camp consists of a lodge, cabins, trails and the new log-walled, glass-domed aurorium capable of holding 75 to 80 people. The businesswoman joined with a Japanese investor to build the structure during the summer.

The most popular month for Japanese visits to Alaska is August, followed by July. The period September through December ranks third in Japanese departures for Alaska.

Itsuro Kato, a Japanese tour operator in Anchorage, says his company is arranging and running tours for 300 to 400 Japanese this year, about the same number he hosted last year. "Many families are traveling to Alaska; more than in the past. There are also large groups of friends that travel together," Kato says.

He estimates about 80 percent of the Japanese who travel to Alaska in the summer are on package tours. Kato notes that the Japanese typically see as much as they can in shorter amounts of time than do other international travelers. When Japanese visitors come to Alaska they want to see the northern lights, glaciers, Mount McKinley, Prince William Sound, wildlife, mountains, lakes and go shopping, according to Kato.

Japanese visitors represented only 1 percent of Alaska's tourists during 1990, but a new air route from Alaska may boost future travel. Reeve Aleutian Airways of Anchorage has announced plans to launch scheduled passenger flights to an airport serving the cities of Chitose and Sapporo in northern Japan.

"The new route will fill the ongoing needs of the more than 20,000 business and tourist passengers from the Orient who travel to Alaska each year," says Richard Reeve, president of Reeve Aleutian. He expects the carrier to operate three weekly round-trip flights during the 1992 summer season and two weekly round-trip flights the following winter.

Anders Westman, marketing director for the Alaska International Airport System, says, "We're very optimistic about the new international service. These flights are opening doors for Japanese travelers."

Also, Delta Air Lines, headquartered in Atlanta, Ga., inaugurated a Los Angeles to Hong Kong service earlier this spring that stops in Anchorage. The route is scheduled six times a week through late 1991, and Delta officials say the flight will serve as a test for the Alaska market and could lead to other trans-Pacific flights through Anchorage in the future.

In early July, another new international airline service was announced. Balair, a subsidiary of Swissair, will begin weekly flights between Anchorage and Zurich, Switzerland, in the spring. Western Tours, the largest tour wholesaler in Switzerland, will coordinate the charter flights.

According to Gina Marie Lindsey, director of the Alaska International Airport System, the flights mark the first dedicated Europe-to-Alaska service. The May 28 to Sept. 10 service aboard Airbus 310/320 aircraft is expected to bring 3,500 European travelers.

According to state figures, 17,800 international tourists flew into Anchorage in the summer of 1990, compared with 16,400 the previous summer. Westman says although international passenger arrivals through September likely will show a 25 percent decline compared with the same period last year, he expects 1991 to be a banner season for domestic traffic. "In 1990, we had 627,342 domestic passenger arrivals, and we're anticipating a considerable increase this year."

Pete Carlson, development specialist with the Alaska Division of Tourism, agrees. He says the 1991 Alaska visitors totals could set records. "We're expecting up to a 10 percent increase in tourism this year. It's possible that we could see a fair amount of international tourists; however, airline seat availability is a factor," he adds.

Over the past two summer seasons, Alaska has seen an increase in international visitors. In 1990, 56,000 Canadians visited, a 12.5 increase over the number of Canadian travelers in 1989, according to Carlson. Similarly, the number of overseas visitors rose from 34,200 in 1989 to 37,000 in 1990, with the majority hailing from Western Europe. Asian travelers, primarily Japanese, increased by almost 1,000 over the 10,500 that came in 1989.

Howard Clifford, director of public relations for Princess Tours, owned by Peninsula and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. of London, says Princess Tours sees a considerable number of international tourists. "Quite a few come from Australia and New Zealand. We also have some from Mexico and Europe," he notes.

Clifford points out that international travelers take extensive tours and expect good quality. "They're the luxury class," he says. "Most want to see as much of the state as possible."

Rich Skinner, director of public relations for Holland America-Line Westours Inc., based in Seattle, agrees that the international tourists are the big spenders. He says they are only a small portion of his company's passengers, however.

"International tourists make up less than 10 percent; however, it's definitely a growing component," explains Skinner. "We see a fair amount of Japanese and Taiwanese, and are also seeing an increase in European travelers, particularly those from England and Germany."

Seeking Solutions. State agencies and private enterprise are seeking ways to attract more tourists from other countries. While seasonality is a factor for most destinations, it is particularly pronounced in Alaska, where the peak season lasts from mid-May to mid-September. Many hotels, restaurants and gift shops remain open year-round, but most sightseeing, recreational tour transportation and cruise businesses operate in Alaska only during peak months.

The majority of visitors during the fall, winter and spring months traditionally have come to conduct business or to visit friends and relatives. But some tourists, such as those in the Asian market, are starting to realize that those months offer excellent opportunities to view the natural wonders that Alaska has to offer.

Recent business reports indicate that tourism is the world's fastest growing industry and will soon be the world's largest. Although Alaska has attracted an increasing number of tourists, strong competitors are Europe, Canada, Mexico, Hawaii, the Caribbean and the Lower 48.

Over the years, some travelers have chosen Alaska over other popular destinations because they view Alaska as a great value for the money and as a destination the entire family can enjoy. But the 1990s will be a decade to test Alaska tourism.

The industry must focus on the future and make long-term commitments to ensure interest from international and domestic travelers alike. Maybe in the future, as spring awakens the Great Land and the geese arrive, Alaska won't be flocked with a sudden arrival of tourists; instead, international and domestic travelers will be visiting year-round.
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Title Annotation:Alaska's tourism industry
Author:Kell, Lori
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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