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North to Alaska in 1997.

Here they come again - Alaska's summer visitors. As you read this, about a million people are either already on the road, in the air or afloat, or making last-minute preparations for a North Country adventure this summer. Some, in fact, have already come and gone this year.

Last summer, Portland businessman Joseph Driscoll, 51, and his wife, Bonnie, 46, celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary by taking the trip of a lifetime - a 10-day cruise/tour to the Last Frontier. They booked the trip in the hopes of experiencing something exotic and wild like they'd never seen before.

"I'm not sure I can name it," said Driscoll. "We just expected something different. Something unique."

That they found. But they also found something else-old-fashioned commercialism. Lots of it.

"I don't think I've seen so many gift shops in my entire life," said Driscoll. "I always thought of Alaska as fishing, hunting and logging. That's just how I always envisioned it. I guess I expected the towns to have a mix of businesses. But tourism seems to be the primary business."

No doubt about it, tourism is big business in the 49th state. And while Alaska sells itself with clean, fresh air, unspoiled wilderness and plenty of wildlife, it seems visitors are buying that and a whole lot more. In 1995, some 967,000 tourists spent about $700 million in the state.

Cruise line passengers who arrive each year in southeastern ports like Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan and Sitka play no small part in that windfall. About 450,000 passengers spent more than $130 million last year in Juneau alone. The numbers are expected to grow this summer.

With that much money at stake, it's no surprise that Juneau residents actively pursue tourist dollars. Tourist-related businesses of all kinds have moved into the downtown core in the hopes of enticing big spenders as soon as they set foot on land.

"Our downtown area has changed," said Sarah Stucky of the Alaska General Store. "Basically downtown is full of tourist businesses. It's galleries, gift shops and restaurants."

Shopping may pass the time, but that's not what brings most tourists into town from their luxury ships. Most cruise passengers - and most of the relatively small number of tourists who arrive in the city on their own - are eager to see the Mendenhall Glacier.

"When you think about going to Alaska to see the edge of the wilderness the glacier is really the thing," said David Tam, a ranger at Mendenhall Glacier State Park. "This is an opportunity to have some interaction with nature."

Mendenhall Glacier, a few miles north of Juneau, is reportedly the third-most-popular attraction in the state. "For a lot of people just seeing a glacier is pretty different," Tam said.

Many people in the local tourism industry estimate that three-quarters of the visitors who arrive in Juneau see the glacier. About 270,000, signed in at the visitors center last year. Others probably didn't have the time. They rafted the Mendenhall River, took a plane trip over the glacier or landed on it in a helicopter.

"We're very busy," said Bob Englebrecht, vice-president of TEMSCO, a helicopter company that lands visitors on the glacier. TEMSCO has been doing helicopter tours since 1983. Though the tours have always been popular, Englebrecht said business picked up substantially when cruise ship companies began offering the TEMSCO tours to passengers as a shore excursion.

Shore excursions are offered for sale on ship. Princess Cruises offers 18 shore excursions to passengers who are interested in doing something different in Juneau. Competition among tour business owners to be selected by cruise companies as one of their shore excursion offerings is fierce.

"Basically what we have is a variety of operators proposing tours," said Kirby Day, director of southeastern operations and shore excursions for Princess. The cruise company will offer shore excursions like bus tours to the glaciers, nature walks, cultural tours, sea kayaking, charter fishing and float plane trips.

One shore excursion the cruise line just began offering is a ride on the Mount Roberts tram. The tram has been hailed as the next big tourist attraction in Juneau. Opened for one month last year, the tram took some 15,000 people to an observation deck at 1,800 feet on Mount Roberts. Once there the passengers had access to a sweeping view of the Gastineau Channel and the city of Juneau. With the opening of a gift shop, restaurant and theater at the summit this summer, the attraction is expected to rival Mendenhall Glacier in popularity.

"The Mount Roberts tram is going to be very popular," said Susan Bell, chief executive officer of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau. Bell has seen cruise traffic skyrocket in southeastern Alaska over the years. She's also seen another trend.

"We're seeing more small adventure operators," said Bell, "We're seeing more and more people who come just to take a backcountry hike or raft trip."

Some people call it ecotourism. Others call it adventure travel. It means baby boomers unwilling to spend their vacations touring Alaska on a cruise ship or a bus are coming to the state for an active trip. These visitors want to see the wild. To do that, they hire one of hundreds of small tour operators that dot the state and will take them to the backcountry to see the "real" Alaska.

"These are people who are interested in learning about the place and the people. This is a more active vacation," said Carol Kasza who co-owns Arctic Treks, a small backcountry touring company. Arctic Treks is based in Fairbanks. But Kasza and her husband Jim Campbell don't stay there. They take visitors on raft trips in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Gates of the Arctic National Park. They also guide backpacking and hiking excursion trips. Some of their trips last nine to 10 days. Others are just one day long.

"Our clients are professionals," said Kasza. "They come from all over the country. Most of them are in their mid-30s to mid-50s. They love coming to Alaska and seeing Alaska."

Jim Wells, co-owner of Alaska Wildland Adventures based in Girdwood, agrees. Alaska Wildland Adventures brings tourists on what Wells terms "natural history safaris." The trips consist of a variety of back-country experiences over nine to 12 days. Activities might include raft trips, hiking trips or other explorations.

"The aging baby boomer wants to be an active participant," said Wells. "They want a trip that has an educational focus. The world is shrinking. Baby boomers aren't content to go on cruises or motorcoach trips that the older visitors enjoy."

Though most tour operators believe Alaska's entire tourism industry has been based on ecotourism or adventure travel from the outset, many also concede that as the terminology catches on so does the interest. Wells' business started as a small Girdwood operation years ago. It's grown substantially.

"I can see ecotourism is growing," said Wells. "People are seeking more of these kinds of trips, definitely."

Alaska Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Association is a trade association that represents about 300 conservation-minded adventure travel tour operators in Alaska. It is a product of ecotourism's growth.

"Just the fact that we exist is evidence that ecotourism has grown," said Ellen Maling, projects coordinator of AWRTA. Members of AWRTA are mostly small operators who focus on "socially responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and sustains the lifestyle."

The Alaska Tourism Marketing Council sees the same trend. The council's newest marketing plan suggests that people who come to the Last Frontier are looking adventure, education and ecotourism, according to a study conducted by the council.

Though backcountry tour operators are bringing a growing number of visitors to the places like ANWR, the Brooks Range, Talkeetna Mountains and other untouched destinations, most of Alaska's visitors end up in Anchorage, the state's most urban environment, for part of their trip.

Cruise ships bus passengers to Anchorage, airlines drop them at the edge of town and road travelers usually just end up there.

Tourists fill up Anchorage's 6,800 hotel and motel rooms and are expected to once again bring the occupancy rate to 97 percent at the peak of the season, according to Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau statistics.

Once in Anchorage, tourists are primarily interested in three things, said Joy Maples, director of communications for the ACVB. "They want wildlife, Native culture, and icebergs and glaciers," she said. For that reason, many visitors to the city take day trips out of town to view these sites. "They really use Anchorage as sort of a jumping off place," said Maples.

Alyeska, a ski slope 40 miles south of Anchorage, has become a major draw for summer tourists since a recent expansion transformed it into a year-round resort. The $100 million expansion was completed in 1994. It included construction of a 307-room hotel, a 60-person tramway, an upper mountain facility and a beginner's chair.

The expansion has apparently helped bring interest to the slope. Though hotel officials won't reveal occupancy rates, reservations in some cases were booked a year in advance for stays this summer. Room rates have gone up from $150 to $175 per night this winter to $230 and up per night.

"Summer is definitely our peak season," said resort spokesperson Allison Knox.

At least one popular attraction will probably benefit as the resort gets increasingly popular. That spot is Portage Glacier. In 1993 the glacier, less than 20 miles from Alyeska, was the state's second-most-visited attraction. About 370,000 visitors stopped to see Portage Glacier last year.

With numbers like that it's not surprising that in 1989 Grayline of Alaska began offering one-hour cruises to tourists interested in seeing the glacier up close. Operating under a special-use permit from the USDA Forest Service, the company offers five cruises per day on Portage Lake beginning in May. Portage Glacier Cruises Manager Janet Pargeter believes the nearby resort expansion has helped business.

Another business that has benefited from Alyeska's popularity is the recently opened Big Game Alaska.

Mike Miller was a construction worker who raised bison in the Mat-Su Valley before he opened Big Game Alaska, a wildlife viewing center located across the highway from the Portage Glacier turnoff. Using reindeer and musk-oxen farms in the Mat-Su Valley as models, Miller developed the wildlife viewing center on 40 acres of land in 1993. His company takes in orphaned bison, Sitka black-tailed deer, caribou, elk, musk-oxen, eagles and moose to help educate visitors about Alaska's wildlife. Tourists drive into the park, pop a narrative cassette tape into the tape deck to act as a guide and view about 40 animals. They're encouraged to get out of their vehicles to see the animals up close.

"Before people thought we were just a roadside attraction," said Miller. "But we're here for a purpose. We want to educate people." Miller estimates that 60,000 people visited Big Game Alaska last year.

Many of Alaska's visitors would just as soon forget attractions like wilderness parks, however. Alaska is known for it's fishing and that brings hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Kenai Peninsula each year. Fish and Game representatives call the Kenai Peninsula the area with "by far the most focused guiding in the state." When you look at the numbers it's clear that the Kenai Peninsula is king when it comes to fishing in Alaska. There are 672 licensed fishing-charter companies on the Kenai Peninsula. That's about three-fourths of the number of licensed charter companies in all of southcentral Alaska.

This also means that Alaska's state parks on the Peninsula will probably be as crowded this summer as they have been in the past. According to Kathryn Reid of Alaska State Parks, places like the Kenai Peninsula are so popular that tourists strain resources.

State parks are crowded enough on the Kenai Peninsula that limits have been set. Campers can stay for 14 days in most campgrounds around the state. That's knocked down to seven days at all Kenai Peninsula parks.

While lots of sportfishing may mean overcrowded campgrounds, strained resources and serious combat fishing situations to some, it means revenue to others. Private recreational vehicle parks have doubled in Anchorage over the past few years. More and more parks are being built in Fairbanks every year to keep up with demand. Those parks aren't only filled with people who drive their motorhomes up the highway. In fact, what officials dub as "rubber tire traffic" was down between 11 and 15 percent last year. Rental motorhomes are now filling many RV parks.

Alaskan Adventure RV Rentals in Anchorage found itself so busy this year it almost doubled its fleet from 65 motorhomes to about 100. "And who knows how many RVs we'll have by the end of the year," said Renee Carter, rental manager at Alaskan Adventure RV Rentals. "We advertise that we only have 1996 and 1997 motorhomes. But we may have to go to 1995s because we're so busy."

Though a big chunk of her customers head to the Kenai to fish, Carter said others often do "the loop." The loop takes renters from Anchorage to Denali to Fairbanks to Valdez, then to Glennallen and Palmer and back to Anchorage.

It's Denali that often captures the imagination of Alaskan visitors. Last summer Joseph Driscoll and his wife found it hard to conceive of the long distance to Denali Park. They drove from Anchorage to Denali and back in one exhausting day.

That isn't necessary. There are by some counts 1,000 rooms in the Denali area. But tourists have to book early. Most of them are reserved well in advance.

The area is so busy, in fact, that when the 262-room Denali Princess Hotel burned down in March 1996, officials hired a crew of 300 to rebuild it in a record 55 days. The company had no choice, said Ron Peck, marketing manager of Princess Tours.

"Essentially we send around 60,000 people on a cruise tour and all of them go through," he said. "We really had no option."

Of all the largest urban areas in Alaska, Fairbanks is perhaps the most neglected by travelers. According to state statistics, only about half the state's visitors make it to the Interior. Though many of them are cruise ship passengers, the fact that highway traffic fell off last year didn't help tourism in the area. Seventy-six percent of the visitors who traveled the highway saw Fairbanks - more than any other group of visitors.

Still, Skip Binkley president of Riverboat Discovery, which takes passengers on a cruise down the Chena and Tanana rivers, says business is booming. In fact, the company is refurbishing an older riverboat, the Discovery II, so it can be used to handle the increased traffic. The river boat cruise has been around since 1950. Most of Fairbanks' other popular attractions have long histories as well.

One attraction that has surprised some with its popularity is the Dalton Highway. The fact that the highway was recently opened to the public and had been the source of national media attention brought many tourists to Fairbanks primed for the challenge of driving this 500-mile-long, gravel road.

"They want to drive an adventurous highway," said Scott McRea, manager of the Fairbanks Visitors and Convention Center.

Visitors can take a tour up the highway or drive to Deadhorse themselves then tour Prudhoe Bay and see the Arctic Ocean, said McRea. Its an arduous trip and so tough that tour companies take visitors to Deadhorse by bus, but fly them back to Fairbanks. That doesn't seem to scare visitors who won't be dissuaded from making the trip, however.

Many of them are, after all, like the Driscolls, who wanted to see something exotic and wild like they'd never seen before. "We just wanted to do something different," said Joseph Driscoll.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
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Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Montoya, Karen
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:May 1, 1997
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