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Whetting appetites for winter wonders.

Tour operators and visitor industry promoters see untapped potential in the Interior's cold-season attractions.

Eleven German visitors, including a secretary and an electrician, spent a day in Fort Yukon running dogs and snow-machines along the frozen Yukon River, meeting local residents and learning a bit about the Interior village's Athabascan history. So taken were they with the village and its residents that they told tour operator Pat Walsh they wished the trip had included an overnight stay.

"Our charm in Alaska is winter," says Walsh, owner of Van Go Custom Tours of Fairbanks. "With winter tourism, there's so much you can do with a little preparation."

A closer look at the Germans' February itinerary proves her right. With a hunger for the unusual, a little planning and the right clothes, there's plenty to do in Interior Alaska come winter. In addition to visiting Fort Yukon, a 50-minute flight from Fairbanks, the group of German visitors spent much of its time following the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

The visitors attended the prerace banquet and mushers' drawing and were at the starting line when the teams and their drivers set off for Whitehorse. The group then followed the race and visited several check points along the road system. At one stop, the tourists met Iditarod champion Rick Swenson. They also had lunch with longtime musher Mary Shields and dinner with a third musher who graciously answered their questions.

The visitors spent a night at Circle Hot Springs and, rounding out the trip's mushing theme, visited a sprint-dog kennel. All in seven days.

Walsh, who has lived in Fairbanks since 1980 and has run tours since 1990, is convinced that there is a viable market for off-season tourism in the Interior. Agreeing with her are officials with the state Division of Tourism and the Tanana Chiefs Conference, an organization representing remote Native villages, as well as other businesses that cater to visitors.

"Business is up. It's better. There's no question about it," says Cliff Rousell, executive director of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Things are really taking off here."

Fairbanks economic consultant Renee Patten concurs: "I think the potential's there, in terms of activities and events and facilities. The small-tour providers are here and very viable."

Bill Elander is chairman of the Alaska Tourism Marketing Council's Fall/Winter/Spring Committee, a group that has for several years looked at ways to lure visitors north between October and May. A study three years ago told Elander that Alaska had a lot to offer off-season visitors, but that nobody -- not even Alaskans -- knew quite what was available.

To remedy the shortcoming, in November 1990, more than 350 people from across the state met to see what they could offer the off-season traveler. The conference attracted everybody from tour operators to air-taxi operators to those with snowmachines for rent.

As a result of that meeting, 5,000 copies of a 112-page travel planner were released last summer at a cost of between $60,000 and $70,000. Geared for travel agents and tour operators, the detailed planner contains information on accommodations, events, tours and attractions that will help operators put together off-season travel packages for Alaska-bound clients. Response to the planner has been "marvelous," says Elander.

Also enthusiastic has been the response of travel writers and tour operators who have visited Alaska on winter familiarization trips. All of the 13 operators who trekked around the state last winter bouncing on snowmachines and casting their eyes on the northern lights have, in turn, booked trips for individuals wishing to do the same.

Among those listed in the travel planner is The Peace of Shelby Wilderness, an operation run by owners Art and Dee Mortvedt and Be Sheldon. Three hundred miles northwest of Fairbanks and 200 miles off the road system, this remote lodge and collection of scattered cabins definitely offers the unusual.

Mortvedt, who does most of his business in the summer, offers winter visitors snowshoeing, skiing and a chance to experience life on a trapline, while also learning winter survival skills. The solitude is unmatched and opportunities abound for capturing the northern lights on film.

Getting to the far-flung lodge may be a bit complicated -- and thus expensive -- but Mortvedt is convinced of the market for winter tourism. "I have no doubt about it. I'm getting calls all the time from travel agents who are looking for places to send their people," says the former schoolteacher, who also is an expert on safety and logistics for scientific study in the Arctic.

Pam McLaughlin for years has felt that the Interior has something to offer off-season visitors. As she tells it, it's just taken a while for everyone else to see things her way. "I've been at it for eight years, pushing winter tourism," says the owner of the Old F.E. Co. Gold Camp 27 miles north of Fairbanks. "All of a sudden, everybody's pushing winter tourism."

McLaughlin has run city tours for three years and has discovered a niche serving middle-income Japanese travelers bent on seeing the northern lights. From mid-December to mid-January, and again from February through March, McLaughlin says she's "swamped" with Japanese visitors who spend days dog mushing, skiing or at the shooting range. Evenings they watch the northern lights from the comfort of her newly completed, $750,000, 4,200-square-foot aurorium. She estimates that 5 percent to 10 percent of her business comes from repeat visitors and that many of her new guests hear about the camp from previous customers.

"To the Japanese, if you view the northern lights, it's almost like a religious experience," explains Denise Brooks, sales and research manager for Alaska Sightseeing Tours. "They'll go out in 30-below weather to watch the northern lights."

Brooks says she, too, is convinced of the off-season tourism possibilities in the Interior and elsewhere in Alaska. But she notes that specific marketing strategies need to be developed to lure people north. In the past, trips scheduled around an event or activity, such as the Yukon Quest or to view fall leaves, have been well received.

Although many of the state's winter visitors have so far been foreigners, Brooks and others say there's a market there for travelers from the Lower 48, as well. "I think we're just at the knocking-at-the-door stage," says Brooks.

The Tanana Chiefs Conference, a non-profit Native regional organization with headquarters in Fairbanks, plans to develop a tourism division, complete with its own director, to help member villages tap the tourism trade. During a recent workshop on tourism, only 6 of the conference's 43 villages said they had no interest in tourism, says TCC's Alfred Ketzler Jr. Although many of the ideas bandied about were tailored to summer visitors, several off-season ideas also were discussed.

"Winter tourism in the Bush is a topic that hasn't really ever been approached," says Ketzler. Not until recently, anyway.

Representatives from Huslia, for example, talked at the workshop about offering dog mushing, snowshoeing and story telling, as well as taking visitors out on traplines and to nearby hot springs. They also mentioned hosting winter wood-yard picnics that would include a day of eating, dancing, story telling and games. Holy Cross felt its ice fishing might be a draw. Ketzler, who works in the conference's natural resource department, says several pros and cons to developing village-based tourism were discussed, as was the need to understand what tourists want and how to market services and activities.

Wendy Wolf, deputy director of the Alaska Division of Tourism, says there's a movement afoot to develop tourism in rural areas and that one of the division's goals is to spread Alaska's tourism dollars throughout the state. "We know the potential's there," says Wolf. She adds that villages must first decide if they want to open their communities to visitors.

Division of Tourism statistics indicate that between October 1989 and May 1990, approximately 250,000 of the state's 807,000 total visitors chose to travel to Alaska in the off-season. According to Wolf, 257,200 off-season visitors arrived in 1990-91. An estimated 4,000 of those were Japanese visiting Fairbanks to view the northern lights. Wolf is confident that the number of Japanese travelers, as well as the overall number of off-season visitors, will be the same or higher this year.
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Title Annotation:Know Alaska
Author:Hill, Robein Mackey
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:May 1, 1992
Words:1385
Previous Article:The interior.
Next Article:Building confidence.
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