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Tracking the tourism stampede.

It's a banner year for Alaska-bound travelers, but only hard work will make the industry a goldmine.

Like another gold rush stampede, a record number of visitors will flock to the Far North this year. To ensure that the bonanza doesn't go bust, businesses and organizations around the state are digging in to overcome challenges and create new strategies that will ensure the tourism industry continues to be a gold mine for Alaska.

"Tourism is far and away the most stable industry Alaska has had, and we've gotten more complacent about it," says Conn Murray, director of the state division of tourism. "No matter what we do, people seem to come."

Statistics reflect the wealth of Alaska tourism. Almost one million travelers come here each year, generating 19,000 jobs in the summer season and an average 13,500 jobs year-round, making pleasure travel Alaska's third-highest employment category. These visitors pour $31 million annually into Alaska's general fund and spend more than $20 million each year riding the state's railroad and airline systems. Counting the trickle-down effect on businesses around Alaska, tourism's total impact brings the state more than $1 billion each year.

But hard times tend to follow every gold rush. At Denali National Park, visitors stand in long lines to catch buses rolling into the scenic wilderness. In Anchorage, last-minute travelers struggle to find overnight accommodations in the busy summer months. Year after year, every Alaska town next to a highway scrambles to find parking space for RV-trekkers.

And these frustrations are only a taste of the tourism troubles that could come.

"We are going to need a cooperative effort on many different levels to expand tourism," says Karen Cowart, executive director of the Alaska Visitors Association.

Unwilling to wait for tourism dark days, Alaska's visitor industry is tackling the issues head on. At the state level, the Alaska Visitors Association just released a report, "Destination: Alaska," which outlines hard-hitting strategies for improving all facets of the visitor trade. On regional levels, far-flung communities now pool their resources and funds to lure more travelers.

On local levels, in every corner of the state, tourism businesses dream up new attractions to entice today's Far North traveler.

Working together, these tourism businesses and organizations hope they can overcome Alaska's visitor challenges. After all, a long-lasting bonanza brings more benefits than a boom that goes bust.

Aggressive Statewide Action. Boasting a membership of more than 700 tourism businesses and organizations, the Alaska Visitors Association (AVA) spent two years and $320,000 of its own funds surveying 600 Alaskans in 27 communities to prepare its "Destination: Alaska" report.

"We wanted to see how the tourism industry could better provide economic benefit to the state and grow but not create problems for the residents of Alaska," Cowart says. "We wanted to provide a foundation for dialog and consensus, then put together an action plan that would work as a blueprint for the Alaska visitor industry."

The report states that, in the 1990s, Alaska's visitors are becoming more independent and eager to travel off the beaten path. They join fly-drive tours instead of the big packaged events; they seek out bed and breakfast homes instead of major hotels; they want "participatory vacations," where they can view wildlife, tour the wilderness and touch Native culture.

To accommodate these growing trends, "Destination: Alaska" recommends:

* Improve public access to tourism destinations, with more rail service, new roads, better ports, increased state ferry service, focused growth in primary tourism areas, and new tourism ventures in unexplored visitor hot spots;

* Extend the summer season into early May and late September;

* Expand winter tourism with separate winter-oriented activities;

* Increase visitor lodging with more facilities in popular areas and more seasonal options;

* Improve the tourism infrastructure through a six-year capital improvement plan and focused attention on highly-trafficked destinations and promising new destinations;

* Target tourism advertising to younger, more independent "hands-on" travelers;

* Increase tourism funding through state appropriations and new revenue resources (such as taxes and user fees).

"This is truly a beginning document," Cowart says. "Now we're working diligently to get the report into the hands of people who will read it and take proper steps.

"We hope this report opens dialog on the visitor industry and somehow involves people in looking at the future," she adds. "Tourism is part of the solution to some of the economic problems facing the state. To be able to grow, we need not only consensus, but cooperation."

Increased Regional Cooperation. A couple visiting Alaska's southwest region wants to watch birds and explore volcanoes. A family cruising into Seward wants to go river-rafting, fly over glaciers and hike mountain trails. To fulfill these diverse travel dreams, Alaska's remote communities know one thing: "If we can put all our eggs in one basket as a single affordable destination, we will get a lot more bang for the bucks," says Dave Karp, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Marketing Council.

By organizing into regional marketing councils, isolated Alaska communities can pool their resources and ideas to attract more tourists. Visitors seeking information on an area can call the regional marketing councils and get names of local chambers of commerce, tour guides, facilities and activities tailored to their tastes.

The Kenai council, barely a year old, expects a 5 percent growth in 1993. Karp says the biggest change in this year's traffic will be cruise ship passengers landing in Seward instead of Whittier. Now, instead of boarding the train in Whittier and heading for Anchorage, these new visitors will head out of Seward for more land-based treks on the Kenai Peninsula.

The local marketing council hopes to steer travelers into attractions like guided glacier tours of Kenai Fjords National Park and informative visitor centers, such as the proposed sealife center in Seward. "Our efforts will focus on tourism package programs, basically taking the guesswork out of it for the clientele," Karp says.

Another regional marketing council, Alaska's Southwest, represents 52 communities, ranging from Kodiak Island to the Aleutians. Home to some of the world's richest fishing, best bird-viewing and most isolated adventures, the region should attract a record number of independent and international travelers during the 1993 season.

"Cooperation is definitely the buzzword in this state because of the cost of promotion, especially if you're trying to reach international tourists like we are," says Heidi Bohi, tourism planner for Alaska's Southwest. "Put your money together, and you get a lot more coverage."

Working together, the remote communities can overcome infrastructure problems: A town that has great walrus watching but no hotel can send its tours to another town that has overnight facilities.

Extending the Seasons. June, July and August find many Alaska visitor destinations bursting at the seams. How to relieve the headaches? Extend the summer season into early May and late September, say Alaska tourism planners.

That's the trick tried by tour companies in Southeast this year. Gary Odle, Holland America's director of marketing for Alaska and Canada, says, "We got together with a few Southeast communities and said, 'Why don't we give people visiting in the month of May more value?"

A "Mayfest" idea blossomed. For the record number of tourists this year -- an estimated 3 percent over last year -- Southeast towns will offer a rainbow of events: fishing demonstrations in Ketchikan, art and Native culture in Juneau, cultural celebrations in Sitka and gold rush history in Skagway.

For its part, Holland America will give away thousands of tulips in Southeast and continue the celebration on board with special drinks and activities.

Winter Wonderlands. Promoters hope that winter -- long considered the curse of Alaska tourism -- may one day prove a blessing. Today, 18 percent of Alaska's visitors arrive in the winter months, between Oct. 1 and April 30.

"We're seeing a continual growth in our winter market, especially stateside," says Cliff Rousell, executive director of the Fairbanks Convention & Visitors Bureau. "This growth comes because of the winter world-class events we offer."

Nearby resorts offer aurora watching. Dog mushers organize events like the International Federation of Sleddog Sports (IFSS) World Championship race held in March. International ice carvers gather in town for Olympic pre-trials and annual competitions.

In Anchorage, Bill Elander, president of the Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau, says, "The construction of the Alyeska Princess Hotel is truly a winter marketing product. I see it as a cornerstone of the statewide winter marketing program."

Another cornerstone of Alaska cold-weather travel could be a new winter vacation planner, published by the Alaska Tourism Marketing Council (ATMC), the marketing arm of the state of Alaska. The book is available for the 1993-1994 winter season.

On a smaller scale, individual Alaskans are exploring winter tourism. In mid-March, Joe Redington Sr., 76, the legendary father of the Iditarod, took seven over-40 travelers on a three-week, S15,000 camping-mushing adventure along the Iditarod trail.

Trekking the Wilderness. Adventure or wilderness travel is Alaska's fastest growing tourism sector, increasing by 20 percent a year. Sometimes referred to as "ecotourism," these adventures move away from large crowds and popular visitor sites to give travelers close-up experiences of the natural environment. The Alaska Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Association, a non-profit organization of outdoor companies, estimates Alaska has over 2,000 businesses that cater to wilderness travelers.

In southwest Alaska, "We were ecotourism before it ever became the buzzword of the industry," says Heidi Bohi. The Southwest lures its visitors with remote tours organized around freshwater fishing, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, wildlife viewing and birdwatching.

Alaska's northern interior also beckons with wilderness adventures. For four years now, the village corporation from Stevens Village, a Yukon River Athabascan community of 100, has taken visitors by boat to a fish camp in the Yukon Flats Wildlife Refuge. In Huslia, an Athabascan town of 200 on the Koyukuk River, three village corporations operate a four-day cultural and wilderness journey.

Even the major cruise lines offer ecology and special nature tours to accommodate the growing number of ocean-bound adventure travelers.

Cruising Along. With more scenic coastline than all the rest of America put together, it's small wonder that cruises bring Alaska the greatest amount of visitors.

"I think Alaska has yet to recognize what a magnet it is for cruising," says Conn Murray, director of the state Division of Tourism. "We are a world-class destination that is expanding annually."

For 30 years now, residents and visitors alike have sailed up the Inside Passage or to the Aleutians with the Alaska Marine Highway System. The ferry service now offers more on-board activities for its travelers and tries to accommodate more independent travelers.

At Princess Tours, "We increased our capacity about 36 percent from 1992 to 1993," says Bill Pedlar, vice president of marketing. "We're projecting at the end of this year, our bookings will be 30 to 35 percent higher than last year."

Holland America expects to enjoy its sixth consecutive Alaska tourism season in 1993, says Gary Odle, director of marketing for Alaska and Canada.

To handle its growing hordes of travelers, Alaska SightSeeing/Cruise West, a Seattle-based company that sails to Juneau every summer, added the 192-foot Spirit of '98 to its four-vessel line.

Cruises are also a hot ticket item at the state's national parks. More than 200,000 travelers cruised through Glacier Bay National Park in Southeast last year. John Quinley, National Park Service spokesman, says, "Glacier Bay gets more ships every year. They're arriving earlier and staying later in the summer, and for the past several years, the ships have increased in size to carry more passengers."

Quinley notes that more tour operators are plying the waters of Kenai Fjords National Park in southcentral Alaska as well. In 1992, more than 108,000 people visited the park.

Tomorrow's Travel Trends. If Alaska wants to welcome greater visitor traffic in the future, it has to tackle its long-standing tourism problems today.

Denali National Park stands as the greatest challenge to overcome. As the most-visited park in Alaska, Denali hosts more than a half million visitors each short summer season. Bottlenecks at the park's entrance and packed accommodations force some prospective visitors to change their travel plans.

To alleviate the crowding, John Quinley says park reservations will be placed on a nationwide computer system this summer. Though plans for a new hotel on the north side of the mountain have been canceled, Quinley says, "We're releasing a plan for facilities on the south side of Denali this spring, and we're looking at facilities further north on the highway, at a trail system on the south side of the mountain and at highway improvements in the park."

Another way to relieve congestion at Denali is to explore new areas of tourism potential, such as Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. "It's just spectacular country, and you have the historic aspects of the McCarthy-Kennicott copper mines there as well," says Conn Murray, state tourism director.

To increase wilderness exploration, the Alaska Visitor Association report recommends development of "pilot projects" in these unexplored areas of high tourism potential, including year-round lodges, trail systems, rest stops and cabins.

Money to pay for tourism improvements is the biggest challenge of all. In the face of declining oil revenues, which help fund statewide tourism, where will more money come from?

"Our most immediate crisis is to get marketing funds to put the image of Alaska in the marketplace," says Karen Cowart, executive director of the Alaska Visitor Association. "If we are not in people's minds, they will go someplace else."

AVA would like a greater return on the $52 million that the tourism industry generates to the state general fund each year. Other tourism revenue-generating ideas circulating around the state include new sales and fuel taxes.

Additional funding sources are pay-for-view watching and user fees. Bear-watchers at McNeil River State Park pay for the privilege, which in turns partially pays for maintenance of the park. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game's divisions of sport fishing and wildlife conservation both charge user fees for different programs.

"What's probably going to happen in the end is a combination of a lot of things," says Conn Murray. 'If we start falling off on our budgets over a period of time, it's bound to have an adverse affect. There are competitive ventures elsewhere in the world."
COPYRIGHT 1993 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Woodring, Jeannie
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:2376
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