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Cruisers, fare wars drive solid season

Posted: October 2, 2013 - 12:00pm

As the leaves turn and snowflakes begin to replace rain in some parts of Alaska, tourism industry officials across the state are reporting a strong summer season.

Though the season is not completely over, preliminary numbers indicate the predicted return to 1 million cruise passengers in the state this year seems to have materialized, said John Binkley, executive director of the Cruise Lines International Association Alaska (formerly the Alaska Cruise Association). 

“2013 looks like it will be, I would say, a good summer for the 30,000-plus Alaskans like myself that depend on the visitor industry for our livelihood,” Binkley said.

The last time more than 1 million cruise passengers toured Alaska was 2009 with approximately 1.02 million cruisers. In 2010 that number dropped to 878,000 and it has been slowly rebounding since.

The downturn in marine travel has been attributed to the national recession and a since-repealed increase in state passenger taxes on the industry.

Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO Nancy Woizeschke said she expects when the final numbers come in they will show that just less than 1 million cruisers passed through Juneau this year. Juneau is the most visited city in Alaska according to reports compiled by the McDowell Group, with about 68 percent of tourists visiting the capital city.

Woizeschke said she hopes Southeast can capitalize on the uncharacteristically warm and sunny weather many of the region’s visitors experienced this summer through return visits.

“When the weather’s good in Juneau it is one of the most beautiful places on Earth,” she said.

The summer’s weather was not favorable for all subsets of Juneau’s visitor industry, however. Woizeschke said the disparity between temperatures at sea level and Southeast’s famed ice fields caused by warm and sunny conditions often leads to high upper-level winds that can ground aerial glacier tours at times.

When that happened, she said visitors and residents alike took to the biking and hiking trails outside of the city.

Woizeschke said retailers reported a slight dip in sales resulting from the abundance of outdoor activity-friendly weather.

“The best time to shop is when it’s raining,” she said.

Initial summer hotel occupancy numbers look “very strong” for Juneau, according to Woizeschke.

Looking ahead, translating Alaska’s recent popularity in the national media will be a top priority for Woizeschke. The reality TV shows “Hotel Impossible,” “Buying Alaska” and “Top Chef” have all filmed in Juneau within the last year, she said, giving the city plenty of exposure.

“We want to show people that not only is Alaska beautiful on TV, but it’s even better in person,” she said.

Southcentral

In Anchorage, which saw a record stretch of 14 consecutive days with highs above 70 degrees in July, Visit Anchorage President and CEO Julie Saupe echoed Woizeschke’s hope that this past summer’s weather would generate return visitors.

“A lot of our businesses that are weather dependant from fishing to flightseeing to bicycle rentals, I think those folks definitely saw a benefit from the sunny, warm weather and it might have encouraged more in-state travel,” Saupe said.

Bed tax revenue in the municipality is on pace to exceed its $22.6 million record from last year, she said. Current numbers show bed tax revenue to be up 6.5 percent over 2012.

Saupe attributes the strong showing in tax dollars to an increase in both hotel occupancy and rates and to exceptionally busy months of July and August, she said.

A trend in travel accommodations being booked later and later along with “air wars” keeping flights to Anchorage relatively inexpensive on top of the favorable weather may have encouraged more sudden travel, Saupe surmised.

Low-cost airlines Jet Blue and Virgin America both recently added summer service to Anchorage.

Saupe said Icelandair’s bi-weekly flights to and from Reykjavik averaged an 80 percent load factor overall — a promising return for first-year service, she said.

Icelandair’s Anchorage service began in mid-May and ended in late September. Iceland is often used as a hub between domestic and European destinations.

Work has already begun to fill the Icelandair flights scheduled for next summer, Saupe said.

“Here at Visit Anchorage we hosted a lot of European tour operators who can sell into those (Icelandair) flights and a lot of European media to get the word out about Alaska as a destination,” she said.

Interior

While Fairbanks did experience the summer warmth enjoyed by other regions of the state, Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO Deb Hickok said the city’s summer tourism season got off to a slow start.

Unseasonably cold weather in May and early June made prepping for and hosting early visitors “operationally challenging,” she said, as many areas still had snow on the ground.

The scenic summer travel route Denali Highway, usually open by May 15, was closed and snow-covered until June 5.

Early indicators on the recent season show the industry mostly recovered, Hickok said.

“I’m ready to say we’re going to see healthy (tourism) numbers, but it wasn’t a banner year,” she said.

Right now Fairbanks is ramping up its “aurora season,” Hickok said, which begins in mid-August. She said there will be three fewer flights from Asia to Fairbanks for Asian travelers wishing to view with Northern Lights because Japan Airlines had planned on using the new and currently grounded Boeing 787 Dreamliner for service to Alaska this year.

The jumbo jet experienced electrical problems during test flights, according to Boeing.

Hickok said it appears a slow start to the aurora season will be short-lived, as additional flights by Korean Air have the winter schedule “looking robust.”

The city also is looking forward to the return of the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention, to be held Oct. 24-26. The convention was last held in Fairbanks in 2010 and typically draws about 5,000 people to its host city.

In March, Fairbanks will host the week-long Arctic Winter Games, which are expected to attract another 4,000 people to Interior.

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