Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 1:21 PM on Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Highway visitors down, cruisers up

By Jonathan Grass
Morris News Service - Alaska

The snow's melting and the roads are clearing, but that doesn't necessarily mean visitors will be flocking to the highways this summer like they used to.

A new study commissioned by the Alaska Department of Commerce and conducted by the McDowell Group shows that highway tourism in Alaska has dropped significantly. Other traveling trends, however, are going up a bit.

The 2011 Alaska Visitors Statistics Program survey found that an estimated 1.56 million out-of-state visitors came here between May and September last year, a 2 percent increase over 2010.

Only about 4 percent of those came in by highway or ferry. This form of travel has dropped 18 percent between 2006 (when the last AVSP survey came out) and 2011. Average vacation lengths from highway travel also have dropped during this time.

Canadian highway travelers have increased, however, with Yukon travelers making up the highest percentage.

These travelers are still less likely to go to the Interior or Southcentral. Highway traffic indicators show that private vehicle traveler numbers are declining at the borders on the Alcan, Top of the World and Haines highways, dropping by 26 percent since 2006. Private vehicles on the Klondike have gone up a great deal.

Heather Haugland, the McDowell Group's project manager for the survey, said the overall drop in highway traffic is driven by decreasing "long haul" travelers, which are those who travel from farther out in the country or Canada and come into the state via cars or recreational vehicles. These are the travelers who generally stay for longer periods of time. She said the decrease of these travelers is partly reflective of trends of traveling closer to home and other trends related to the recession aftermath.

Haugland said that while many news reports have pointed out the highway and ferry decrease, Alaska's travel news is still good since 2011 marked the first increase for all travelers since 2007.

"I think the economic recovery, such as it is, is playing a part in the slight increase and there's this pent-up demand for travel," she said. "Based on the cruise ships and economic recovery, I think the visitation will increase again this year."

More than half of all visitors came in by cruise ship. Cruise passenger count took a big hit in 2010. The 883,000 cruise passenger count last year is only a very slight increase.

Haugland said this is still down 14 percent from 2008's cruise peak. The survey states this was due in part by the recession and cruise line response to the state head tax that was cut back in 2010.

Still, projections indicate 2012 will be better. AVSP projects a 6 percent growth in berth capacity. Part of this is increased ship volume, such as Princess and Norwegian cruise lines each adding a ship.

The Associated Press reports that Alaska as a cruise destination is expected to be bigger than ever this year and also credits the rollback of the head tax as a contributor to this. Higher airfares to Europe also are encouraging more passengers to consider Alaska cruises for their vacations.

"We're seeing Alaska trend again in terms of a destination a lot," Vicky Garcia, executive vice president of Cruise Planners/American Express, told the AP. "Airfares are attractive enough to do Vancouver or Seattle, even Anchorage. However, Europe is just pricing itself out of the market. Air is just too expensive."

Sara Tamling is the dock manager for Alaska Travel Adventures in Juneau and gets a good feel for the passengers that visit her every year. She expects at least 50,000 more visitors this year. Tamling provides tours for these cruise passengers and said these, including motor homes, have been selling well.

Air travel also is doing well. The market has shown a strong recovery since the recession with a 5 percent increase in 2011 that followed a 14 percent increase from the year before. The 2011 air volume even slightly surpassed the previous peak in 2007, albeit by less than 1 percent.

Jonathan Grass is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.