Those in the Alaska travel business will face a nail-biting year as they wait to see if - and even when - tourists will book their fares North.
That was the message from the state's tourism industry leaders who spoke during the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce luncheon Feb. 23.
Industry officials are optimistic that tourists destined for Alaska will come, and that they're just holding out until the last minute hoping to get a good deal on their trips.
"Cruise travelers are slapping at the bait, but just haven't taken the hook yet," said Bill Fletcher, director of sales and marketing for Holland America. "I can't really give you any idea of what the bookings are like because people are putting off booking."
John Binkley with the Fairbanks-based Riverboat Discovery, said his organization's bookings are down 30 percent.
"This means 40 to 50 fewer local jobs this summer, and for Fairbanks, that's a big deal," he said.
Fletcher is optimistic that his and other cruise operators will fill their ships, but it will take some enticements to make it happen.
"People still want to travel," said Fletcher. "But they are waiting for the best deal or money off discounts or points that they can use for value added deals."
Or they'll have to get creative. Holland America has developed a new promotion, referred to as the "take your time" cruise, that offers one-way fares between spots in Alaska and Seattle. The prices are so low that some plan to use the $440 one-way passage between Whittier and Vancouver as a conveyance to Seattle.
"With fares costing $450 on Alaska Airlines, some are booking a cruise ship passage, taking a week with all meals included to go to Seattle," said Scott McMurren with Toursaver.com.
By offering such creative and low-ticket options, travelers eventually will book trips, and cruise lines will fill their 29 tours, 27 of which are scheduled to stop in Anchorage this season, Fletcher said.
The Alaska Travel Industry Association's Ron Peck noted that Alaska still is a premium destination for world travelers, but the days of those folks paying premium ticket prices - at least for the upcoming season - are over.
"Alaska was a command premium destination in the travel industry, but we've lost that," said Fletcher. "Just attracting travelers to the state will be a huge challenge."
To top it off, there are 10 new ships coming on line this tour season. None are coming to Alaska, and that adds to the competition factor.
"While Alaska has vast wilderness, majestic mountains, tidewater glaciers and big wildlife, the reality is that domestic U.S. travelers will go to national parks two hours down the road," Fletcher said. "Or book on one of the newer discount destinations."
"Alaska is still considered a long-haul exotic destination," Peck said. "More and more people are looking for back-to-basic-type destinations for a connection to wild places. The Yukon is more and more front and center to this type of experience. Face it, Denali is not that."
On a positive note, it may be a great year for Alaskans to get a good deal.
"This season is a new page in booking-world history, people are not planning on coming up here like before," McMurren said. "But the silver lining is that there will be some great values and good offers for Alaskans who want to see their state."
"There is going to be excess capacity at hotels and lodges," said Binkley. "This would be a good time for the state to start a promotion to highlight local travel destinations in Alaska."
Fletcher said that while the 2009 season likely would be down, 2010 shows promise.
"After this year, everyone will have adjusted and gotten used to the concept of cheaper basic travel and the economic woes, then things will get better in 2010," Fletcher said.
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