ANCHORAGE - The debate over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is fueling a surge in tourism to the northern Alaska wilderness area this summer.
Tourists are anxious for a glimpse of the refuge's famed caribou migration and wealth of wildlife, according to wilderness guides. Although many outfitters have more than doubled the number of trips to the refuge, they're still not keeping pace with demand.
"We're turning people away," said Carol Kasza, co-owner of ArcticTreks. Kasza said she and her husband are taking more visitors to the refuge this season than they have during the 20 years they've run the Fairbanks-based business.
Nearly 70 percent more tourists are expected to visit this summer compared with last year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge.
While the number of expected visitors on guided trips 591 is minuscule compared with the number of visitors to Alaska's more popular attractions, outfitters say refuge tourism is robust and growing.
Some tourists visit ANWR independently, but the government doesn't track those numbers.
Karen Jettmar, owner of Equinox Wilderness Expeditions in Anchorage, usually does four trips to the refuge each summer. "This year I'm personally guiding six and I have five more trips being guided by others," she said.
Politics is driving the boom, according to guides, clients and the refuge's federal manager.
"When Bush was campaigning for the presidency, he made it very clear that he intended to drill in ANWR," said Amy Gulick, 36, a free-lance writer and photographer from the Seattle area who plans to visit the refuge in June. "My husband and I figured this may be our last chance to see this place undisturbed."
Julie Lams, a retired nurse practitioner from Sandpoint, Idaho, said the recent push for drilling in the refuge leaves her infuriated at Bush and ready to travel north.
"I'll put up with the mosquitoes," said Lams, 66.
Tourism to the coastal plain also spiked in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Congress considered legislation that would have authorized drilling, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1990, 886 guided tourists spent time in ANWR. Two years earlier, just 362 visited, the federal agency said.
The typical 10-day trip to ANWR can involve canoeing down a river that starts in the Brooks Range and flows to the Arctic Ocean, or backpacking on the tundra, or day hiking from a base camp. The expeditions generally cost $2,000 to $3,000, guides said, including food and airfare from Fairbanks.
"It's costing me a fortune. More than my trip to Antarctica. But it's worth it," Lams said.