Early signs point to slower tour season

Reservations for summer tours have leveled or dropped

Posted: Tuesday, May 08, 2001

ANCHORAGE - A slowing U.S. economy is expected to bring fewer tourists to Alaska this summer.

Reservations for lodging, cruises, airlines and all manner of adventure travel appear to be either flat or down from last summer, according to an informal survey by the Anchorage Daily News of tourism business owners around the state.

And while a record number of cruise-ship passengers are expected to visit Alaska, some cruise lines are resorting to bargain-basement rates to lure those travelers.

"It's not all doom and gloom, but it isn't great either," said Susan Knapman, general manager of Tundra Tours and Top of the World Hotel in Barrow. Even a half-percentage-point gain over last year's reservations would be good, Knapman said, but the numbers just aren't there.

Rita Gittins, head of the Anchorage Alaska Bed and Breakfast Association, also said the season is shaping up to be slow based on what she's hearing from members and seeing firsthand.

"The bookings are down considerably from last year," said Gittins, owner of Alaskan Frontier Gardens Bed and Breakfast.

John Mazor, president of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau, said his organization is getting similar reports.

"We are seeing not as many prebooked activities as we did at the same time last year," he said. Reasons include the economy and a trend toward later bookings by cost-conscious customers.

Alaska Airlines also reports a decline in summer traffic to the state.

"Our bookings for Alaska are slightly weaker than a year ago. It looks like a significant portion of the weakness is due to fewer advance bookings for cruises," said Jack Walsh, a spokesman for the Seattle-based carrier.

The cruise industry has experienced explosive growth over the last decade. About 683,000 cruise-ship visitors are expected this year, a 191 percent increase from 1990, according to The McDowell Group, a Juneau research firm that tracks the cruise industry.

But that growth is cooling. In 1999, cruise traffic increased by 6 percent compared to 10 percent in 1998 and 17 percent in 1997, according to McDowell.

"We think we'll have a good year, but we don't think it's going to meet our aggressive growth plans," said Terry Bichsel, a senior vice president with Holland America, which predicts a 4- to 5-percent increase in revenue and passenger numbers.

Royal Caribbean is among the cruise companies dropping prices to lure visitors to Alaska. A round-trip ticket on a seven-day cruise from Vancouver, British Columbia, can be as low as $590, said Bob Stone, vice president for tour operations.

"Everyone has had some rate pressure. Peak season has held fine. It's early season and late season where it's the most dramatic," Stone said.

Smaller tour companies are also feeling the pinch. Phillips Tours and Cruises, which offers glacier tours in Prince William Sound, sent out 8,000 brochures this year to people requesting information about Alaska summer tourism opportunities.

"We were amazed at how few responses we got," said owner Brad Phillips.

Phillips conducted a telephone survey of those who requested information. He asked them if they were planning to travel to Alaska this summer. Most said they were putting off a trip until at least 2002 because of declines in the stock market and the general economic slowdown, Phillips said.

For the Alaska Travel Industry Association, the state's major tourism marketing group, it's too early to gauge definitively how the season will go, executive director Tina Lindgren said. But "flat" is the word of the day, with most members not expecting any great increase in summer clients, she said.

Besides higher gas prices and sluggish economic growth, more tourism-related businesses sprout in Alaska every year, and they compete for the same visitors, Lindgren said.

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