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Visitors are good for Juneau, and the Southeast in general

Posted: December 25, 2011 - 1:17am

Alaskans saw an end this year to the slide in the numbers of visitors traveling to the Last Frontier. This is a welcome trend, one that appears likely to continue in 2012 with visitor figures actually starting to grow once again, for which Alaskans should be grateful.

With the onset of a national economic downturn in 2008, the numbers of people coming to Alaska began to drop disturbingly. By 2009, overall annual visitors had declined from over 1.7 million to less than 1.6 million. The sharpest declines were among those traveling by ferry or air, and there were fewer cruise ship passengers. In addition to not as many people, those who came were spending noticeably reduced sums, some 16 percent less than previously. Fewer people coming to Alaska meant less bed and sales tax revenue, rental cars and hotel rooms, and a host of other foregone positive economic impacts. The lost tax revenues had a direct and tangible effect on the capital city’s annual budget.

Even in the recent down years, the visitor industry was directly responsible for some $2.1 billion spending, 27,000 jobs, and $800 million in wages. These are large figures in the overall Alaskan economy, in a sector where growth is not only possible, but likely in the coming year. This is in part due to global trends that are encouraging more Americans to travel domestically, and for international travelers to want to visit Alaska more than, say, the Mediterranean coast of North Africa or other volatile regions of the world. Alaska’s improving traveler industry picture also derives from a stable tax and regulatory regime that seems to be working well from all perspectives.

Anchorage is adding more cruise visits every summer, while smaller communities like Hoonah are creatively and proactively finding new ways to offer unique and exciting experiences to people eager to see the Great Land. Ports of call all along Alaska’s coastline are all undertaking regular improvements to enhance cruise-ship visitors’ experiences and bring more economic activity to their communities.

Oceania Cruise Lines is a company that began operating in Alaska in 2011. This new player’s presence in the cruise marketplace is certainly welcome because it has the direct effect of bringing more than 1000 passengers and crew to ports of call including Anchorage, Juneau, Homer, Hoonah, Ketchikan, Kodiak, Sitka, and Skagway. At the same time, there is the indirect positive effect of augmented competition in the provision of cruise services. Having more options available to would-be visitors encourages each business to provide the best experience for a competitive price, which should it time lead to an even more robust market that will yield even greater benefits to Alaskans.

The largest cruise company operating in Alaska is Carnival Cruises, which owns and operates its eponymous brand as well as two other major lines Princess Cruises and the Holland America Line. Carnival recently announced that its 2011 in Alaska had gone incredibly well, with cabins full and revenues up. This is not the reported trend in other areas of the world where Carnival operates, which bodes well for the future in Alaska.

Looking a little farther off in the future, Norwegian Cruise Lines recently announced that it would be operating a total of three ships in Alaska in 2013. This is the largest market presence for Norwegian since 2009, and will mean many more people cruising Alaskan waters and visiting shoreside towns and villages. Hoonah will be one of the communities Norwegian will visit, where the world’s longest zipline is a hugely popular attraction.

Cruise lines and their passengers are expressing more interest in visiting the far north parts of our state. A German company called Hapag-Lloyd, will offer journeys from Vancouver to Nome and also from Nome to Reykjavik, Iceland, in the coming year. While the troubled European economy may dampen demand for this sort of cruise in the short term, in the long run the loss of summer sea ice and Europe’s economic rebound will probably make Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean itineraries much more in demand.

Having lived in the heart of downtown for the better part of a decade, I know as well as any one in Juneau how vast numbers of visitors present challenges in our daily lives. But every analysis shows that the benefits are much greater than the relative costs. We have many steps to take in continuing to plan for and build a downtown that works for Juneau residents all the year round and for a million tourists in the summer. It’s not easy, but it is something we can and must do alongside our coastal neighbors across the state.

• Brown is an attorney who lives in Juneau.

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