FAIRBANKS - The Princess Tours buses stopped in front of the Log Cabin Visitor Information Center and about 250 people stepped off, turning sleepy downtown Fairbanks into a beehive of activity on Saturday.
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The people fanned out, and with only an hour to kill, their goals were simple. They searched for sandwiches to eat, sun to absorb and kitsch to buy.
After a long, cold winter, the summer influx of buses carrying visitors on package tours began last week, injecting some vigor into the downtown economy.
Many visitors headed to The Fudge Pot, where the line soon snaked out the door. Others stopped at Soapy Smith's Pioneer Restaurant. Joan Busam at l'assiette de Pomegranate also had a restaurant full of hungry people.
A few taxicabs lingered, and were quickly snatched up by the tourists. Other visitors camped out on benches at the Golden Heart Plaza, basking in the sun.
Jim O'Malley, the Fairbanks police officer on downtown foot patrol, put on his game face, becoming his alter ego "Officer Friendly." He strolled the streets, prepared to give directions, restaurant advice or answer questions about life in the far north.
"I get a lot of questions about when is it going to get dark," O'Malley said.
Visitors also commonly ask how cold the temperature dipped last winter, and "Do people really live in cabins without running water?"
Downtown gadfly Frank Turney sat on a park bench, reading a newspaper, ignoring the swarms of people.
At Arctic Travelers Gift Shop, manager Angelee Heinemann polished shelves holding ulu knives.
The tourist seasons usually starts with a trickle, Heinemann said. This year, the buses have been more full and there's been a steady stream. The full buses offer promise of a good season, Heinemann said.
"I'm looking forward to the summer," Heinemann said.
Employees at the Visitor Information Center said the number of visitors now is nothing compared to how many are expected after Memorial Day.
"It's not like it's high season yet," said information specialist Anna Brackney.
A couple of blocks away, Johnny Jones of JJ's Jewelers thought about how to get more tourists into his store. Jones sells watches, rings, wall clocks and Alaska Native masks among his wares.
"With the tourists, it's hard figuring out what they want," Jones said. "It's kind of hit and miss."