ANCHORAGE - With runaway fuel prices, it's somehow fitting that Jim and Wilma Fowler's Airstream Safari sports a green sign, "Alaska or Bust," on the back window of the 25-foot travel trailer.
The couple's friends were flabbergasted that they were driving 3,800 miles to Alaska from Oak Park, Calif., for a three-month trek in their son's adopted state. Still early in their sojourn, the Fowlers have put in 5,000 miles and paid $2,300 for the diesel fueling their Ford F20 - and they're not bust broke yet, said Jim Fowler, 70, a retired aerospace worker.
"It's getting closer every day, though," he laughed at an Anchorage RV park.
"It really hurts to have to pay that, but what do you do? We're not filthy rich, but we're lucky enough to afford to do this within limitations."
Alaska's tourism leaders anticipate many more like-minded travelers to a state where summer visitors far outnumber its population of 640,000. But with burgeoning oil prices and the U.S. toying with a recession, Alaska's second largest private industry would be lucky to break even with last year's record season, which saw 1.7 million-plus visitors who spent more than $1.5 billion in the state, according to the Alaska Travel Industry Association.
"I'm concerned. If we are flat overall, I would be pleased," said association president Ron Peck. "I hope we reach the same level as last year. If I'm wrong and we get above that, I'll be tickled pink. But I would not bet my next born child that we are going to have an increase in visitors."
For many travelers, however, the nation's largest state is a once-in-a-lifetime dream vacation that can take years to plan and save for. It's a destination packed with opportunities to see moose, bears, caribou, bald eagles and whales, a hunting and fishing Mecca, a frontier full of glaciers, mountains, fjords, outdoor adventures and Alaska Native culture.
Many tourism businesses are banking on that mystique to keep Alaska from joining a national trend that has folks staying closer to home. A random sampling of hotels and B&Bs suggests a solid summer, although the Bed and Breakfast Association of Alaska estimates that bookings among its members are down by as much as 20 percent.
Particularly optimistic are wilderness guides catering to wellheeled clients.
Hugh Rose, a Fairbanks-based photographer and guide, said he is booked solid for 11 excursions, which can run as high as $8,300 for a 20-day trip that includes treks at Prudhoe Bay, Prince William Sound and Denali National Park and Preserve. He said he's already filled all seven slots for that trip in 2009 and people are waiting for him to set dates for 2010 so they can put down their $500 deposits.
"The clientele I deal with is, for the most part, fairly upper end," Rose said. "The mortgage crisis did not affect them because their house is paid for. They are upper middle class and retired."
Some businesses are seeing more foreign travelers taking advantage of the sagging dollar. For that same reason, Alaska can attract Americans forgoing overseas trips, according to the Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Cruise ship passengers, the backbone of Alaska's travel industry, are expected to remain on par with last year's numbers - slightly more than 1 million. But that's because the cabin capacity remains unchanged and cruise line companies offer deep discounts when necessary to fill their rooms, said John Binkley, president of the Alaska Cruise Association.
Binkley expects spending will be down away from the ships, with passengers buying fewer souvenirs and taking fewer, less expensive, shore excursions.
"It might seem that the numbers look good, but the economic impact is not as good," he said.
Binkley said bookings are down about 10 percent in his family's Fairbanks-based business, Riverboat Discovery, which offers sternwheeler day tours on the Chena and Tanana rivers.
Fuel prices - approaching the $4 a gallon mark for regular unleaded nationwide - could be a significant deterrent, judging by an industry consumer study of people interested in driving to Alaska through Canada. Six percent of the respondents said gas prices would be a deterrent in the fall of 2006, when the national average for unleaded was just under $2.25 a gallon. A year later, when the national average for unleaded was inching toward $3 a gallon, the number had jumped to 21 percent.