Weakened dollar draws foreign tourists

Posted: Monday, June 30, 2008

FAIRBANKS - Tourism officials monitoring business in Fairbanks see a bright side to high gasoline and grocery prices.

The weakened U.S. dollar has made Alaska a bargain for tourists from foreign countries.

"Alaska is on sale," said Dave Worrell, communications director for the Alaska Travel Industry Association.

Foreign travelers, especially German-speaking Europeans, are making reservations before the exchange rate narrows.

Ralph Meyer, owner of Go North Alaska Travel Center, a company that caters to German and Swiss travelers, said business is up 30 percent over 2007, a record year. Vehicle rentals are booked through the summer.

"The weak dollar made it really affordable to them, compared to the euro or Swiss franc," Meyer said. Many guests say they splurged at the last minute on an Alaska trip.

Many clients like to fly in, rent a motor home or car and drive with overnights and day tours pre-booked by Go North.

Bridgewater Hotel general manager Buzzy Chiu is seeing increases in German travelers and visitors from Australia. Vacationers from both countries tend to travel on their own and take longer vacations, she said.

The increased travel by German-speaking Europeans is good news for small towns and businesses that typically rely on road tourists.

Many German visitors fly on Condor airline direct to Fairbanks, Whitehorse or Anchorage. Fairbanks International Airport has one weekly Condor flight scheduled May 22 through September, and flights are averaging 90 percent full, said Al Koch, vice president and general manager for All-Alaska Tours.

Koch noted that Alaska also is benefiting from a significant decline in European travel to Canada, where prices are no longer a value. Even tourists flying into Whitehorse typically enter Alaska within three days, and spend up to 85 percent of their total vacation on roads between Whitehorse, Fairbanks and Anchorage.

Scott Reisland, who with his family owns Denali Grizzly Bear Resort and RV Park, said he's seeing up to 40 percent more business from German-speaking Europeans.

"They are good for small business. They rent RVs, they stay at small campgrounds, they shop in small shops," Reisland said.

He's hoping the increase will help compensate for declines in domestic recreational vehicles.

Highway border crossings into Alaska in May were down about 11 percent over last year, according to the Alaska Public Lands Information Center in Tok.

"I really feel we're going to have to be tightening our belt," Reisland said. "There is going to be a big decline. It's June, July and August that's the make-or-break-it for the RV industry. I think the Alcan is going to be a desolate road."

The Alaska Travel Industry Association is concerned that fewer border crossings could affect tourism statewide, Worrell said. However, if Americans find overseas travel prohibitively expensive, they could turn to Alaska as an alternative exotic destination.

At Go North, Meyer is optimistic for 2009. Large tour operators already have secured reservations at today's exchange rate.

"The big question mark is Condor," Meyer said, anticipating higher ticket prices to compensate for rising costs. "It all depends on the fuel prices."

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