More Alaska tourists seeking out the softer side of adventure travel

Posted: Sunday, June 01, 2008

As a million cruise ship passengers disembark in Juneau this summer, each with reservations for shore excursions to watch whales, trek on the glacier or kayak Juneau's slice of the Inside Passage, it may seem that adventure travel in Alaska is as popular as ever.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

But a closer look at the trips sold by outfitters shows that adventure travel has changed.

Trips are shorter, only two hours in some cases, instead of days or weeks spent in Southeast Alaska's vast areas of wilderness, and people are shunning tents for a soft pillow and candlelit dinner.

While some might point to the immense rise of the cruise industry in Alaska as a reason for this softening, insiders say it's the travelers themselves who have changed the industry.

"As baby boomers have gotten older, they've wanted to do more things with their families and want to have more of the creature comforts," said longtime guide Butch Carber. "So the entire industry has moved to a softer side."

Sleeping on the ground, carrying a heavy backpack, bugs, rain ... that's out. With less time, more money and a desire to see and do everything on their visit, visitors are looking for day trips that expose them to the wonders of Alaska, followed by a stay in a bed and breakfast, hotel or ship cabin.

The trend is not exclusive to Alaska, either.

"It's pervasive throughout the industry," said Kevin Callaghan, president and CEO of Mountain Travel Sobek, a California company that owns the formerly Juneau-based Alaska Discovery. "Up until 1999 or 2000, there was a really strong interest in outdoor camping and true wilderness experiences. (But) the amount of overnight, multi-day usage has gone down dramatically."

The company in the 1990s ran up to 10 groups at a time doing weeklong sea kayaking trips in Southeast, but has trimmed that back to one, said former owner Ken Leghorn, who still occasionally works as a consultant.

In Glacier Bay, the company stopped selling its longer camping trip in the East Arm, and now camps with clients only two nights in the West Arm during a nine-day itinerary that brings them to Admiralty and Chichagof islands as well as Glacier Bay.

The changes in demand prompt successful companies to tweak itineraries or completely change focus to book clients.

Becky and Sean Janes started Above & Beyond Alaska in 2002 with an eye toward multi-day glacier and sea kayaking trips, but by 2005 had switched focus to day-long excursions. That's when their Juneau business took off.

Ninety percent of their clients now book day trips.

"We're opening ourselves up to the changing market," Becky Janes said. "People want to do day outings and come back to the comforts of a hotel."

And instead of posting scheduled departure dates for multi-day trips on the Web site, the Janes' offer custom itineraries to give travelers looking for wilderness immersion precisely what they want.

Usually, that's no longer than two to five days of camping, Janes added.

At Alaska Discovery, changes meant moving some operations out of Alaska. Reservations, marketing and upper management are run from the office in Emeryville, Calif. Operations in Southeast are pared down and spread out.

There is a warehouse in Juneau, a three-person office in Gustavus and a few guides employed in Haines. The company had up to 50 full-time seasonal employees in Juneau in the 1990s, but now employs one.

If anyone should be nostalgic about the good-old days, it would be Leghorn, who started with the company in the 1970s and sold it in 2000 to Mountain Travel Sobek.

He and his wife, Sue Warner, saw changes coming as clients started looking for softer adventures.

Leghorn said he now feels grateful Alaska Discovery still offers some of the immersion wilderness trips in Southeast.

"Few companies can hang onto the long-trip market," he said. "Mountain Travel Sobek is one of the exceptions."

Besides changing clientele, Leghorn said the Internet brought new marketing challenges at the end of the 1990s for adventure tour operators.

"It was difficult for us to be well represented online with all the competition for sea kayaking, with the rise in cruise ships selling to the adventure market," he said. "In hindsight, it had become to feel daunting to us; it was a good time to sell."

Callaghan, the company president and CEO, said he and others in the industry speculate that cruise ships depress the independent market in Alaska somewhat.

"With cruise ships it's a lot more accessible; they've made it seem more user-friendly," Callaghan said. "You can see the bears up close, you can go on the glacier, you can do these things, but before, Alaska was a lot more difficult, more formidable."

It might be easier for tourists to see Alaska's wonders today, but some guides say they're missing out.

"The sad thing people in this industry realize is that it takes four to five days before you slough all that baggage off," said Carber, who started guiding for Sobek Expeditions in 1984, which after a merger became Mountain Travel Sobek. He also ran Alaska Discovery in Juneau until last year.

"On the fourth or fifth day, you can see the physical change in people. They relax and move into a different perspective," he said. "Issues they had at home just aren't as important and they again realize what wilderness has to offer: that freshness, that lack of complexity."

The logistics of new trips that offer so many different activities also have become complicated, said Alaska Discovery office manager Shelli Ogilvy, who works in Gustavus. Moving luggage and making dinner reservations have supplanted finding a nice spit of sand to set up camp and cook over a fire.

More importantly, she said, the new logistics take away the ability for clients to relax and unwind.

"They're losing out on the wilderness relationship and even the relationships they can develop with people," Ogilvy said. "It's the third day that people start loosening up and laughing about things."

But the trend is not expected to return to camping. No one calls Above & Beyond Alaska about 10-day camping trips, Janes said, but she and her husband still feel they're helping tourists have the trip of a lifetime.

"You can still tap into nature on day trips, you can touch them and help them really appreciate the world they live in," she said. "If we can give them the opportunity to go out on the glacier and walk on it ... we've given them that experience."

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or

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