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ANCHORAGE - Visitor industry officials, still reeling from an unusually sparse tourist season in 2009, aren't smiling broadly yet, but there's an air of optimism sparked by a forecast from the U.S. Travel Association's marketing outlook forum.
The association says declines in travel are bottoming out, meaning that 2010 will be marginally better than last year, giving some in the tourism industry a sense of optimism that consumer confidence is back, said Deb Hickok, president and chief executive officer of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau.
On the other hand, others are predicting the tourism market in Alaska will be down further, she said.
Still, some members of the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau are already indicating they are selling summer business at a better pace than this time last year, ACVB President Julie Saupe said in her mid-January annual report to the community.
The big unknown for Southcentral Alaska is how much of an increase in independent travel the industry can muster to fill the gap left from some 100,000 fewer cruise ship travelers.
Dave Kasser, director of tourism sales for ACVB, estimated the loss of one Holland America and one Princess Cruises ship to the Anchorage market at about $50 million.
Kasser, fresh from tourism seminars in several states, including Ohio and Texas, said he's seeing a lot of interest in Alaska tourism, particularly for independent travelers, but that it will take a collective industry effort to sell the value of trips to the 49th state.
"We need to make it easy for people to purchase an Alaska trip and be confident that they will see what they want to see at a price they consider a value," he said.
One of the perks of the tourism shows he has traveled to in advance of the 2010 summer season has been the people he's met who have been to Alaska, Kasser said.
"People walk up and tell you every portion of their trip to Alaska, and while they are standing there talking, they are selling other people who are walking up," he said.
Kasser said he also sees new growth in overall international market of visitors to Alaska, which is currently about 10 percent of overall tourism.
"The big new market is South America," he said. "We are starting to see more people from South America and India."
Germany and Japan still make up the bulk of the foreign visitors to the state, he said.
German travelers stay an average of three to six weeks, and tend to stay at mid-range or less types of property. They are looking for value over anything else. They will buy groceries and rent RVs, he said. Germans get six weeks vacation a year, Kasser said, and when they travel they want experiences off of the beaten track.
The Japanese, by comparison, generally travel in groups, with meals and everything laid out, he said.
What will help improve the tourism industry for Alaska this summer is for the industry to work collectively to make it easier for independent travelers to package trips at various levels of value, Kasser said.