ANCHORAGE - Princess Tours plans to route several thousand people up the Richardson Highway next summer, a place where tourism giants now have virtually no presence.
The attraction will be Princess' $10 million, 85-room lodge, scheduled to open next May, and the vast Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
The Richardson Highway runs north-south 368 miles between Fairbanks and Valdez.
With no local government to manage growth in the Southcentral area of the highway, Native corporation Ahtna Inc. is unofficially stepping into a guiding role.
Ahtna has used its leverage as owner of 1.7 million acres in the area to work a deal with Princess that has Ahtna weighing in on activities that Princess will offer its clients, said Tad Kehl, project manager for Ahtna in Glennallen.
"We don't want to have a Glitter Gulch here," Kehl said. "We want to take a conservative approach to how we develop our land vis-a-vis tourism. The agreement with Princess allows us to have a long-range planning tool to manage growth."
Other major tour providers have expressed an interest in buying land in the area, Kehl said, so the Princess lodge is a test piece.
"We want to make sure the lifestyles of local residents aren't affected. Overcommercialization would impact that lifestyle. If our sole purpose was to make money off land leases, I think that would be a detriment to our shareholders and to other local residents," Kehl said. "We'll see how this goes. Then we can move to develop other parcels."
Princess is one of the two big international companies that dominate Alaska tourism, carrying tens of thousands of visitors each year on their cruise ships, buses and train cars, and lodging them in their hotels.
The Copper River Wilderness Lodge will be Princess' fifth Alaska hotel. The lodge, near Mile 101 Richardson Highway, can hold 8,000 guests over a four-month tourist season.
About 2,800 people live year-round in the communities of the Copper River Valley, including Glennallen, Copper Center, Chitina and McCarthy.