While tourism fades at lower 48's national sites, Alaska draws crowds

Marketing ploys and tourist packages lure streams of sight seers

Posted: Sunday, September 10, 2006

ANCHORAGE - From Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park in Southeast to Denali National Park and Preserve in the Interior, Alaska appears to be bucking a National Park Service trend.

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Elsewhere, visitation has flat-lined or declining. But tourism in 49th state's national parks continues to creep steadily upward.

"This year, the Alaska region will host about 2.3 million recreational visits - more than double the number from 1986," said Alaska regional director Marcia Blaszak.

As other, flagging national parks try to figure out ways to lure new visitors, some Alaska parks, in fact, wonder about letting so many in.

A limit on mountain climbers on the West Buttress of 20,320-foot Mount McKinley - the tallest peak in North America - will begin next year. And the Park Service, after much study, is proposing to allow an extra cruise ship a week into Glacier Bay National Park to view the ice, mountains, whales and seals.

Expecting growth in Alaska park visits to continue into the foreseeable future, park officials often worry as much about controlling and channeling growth as promoting it, though everyone is acutely aware of what has been happening Outside.

Nationally, park visitation has fallen 14 million since a peak of 287 million in 1999. Everything is being blamed, from the Internet causing millions of Americans to go virtual to changes in the nature of today's family in which working spouses find it hard to coordinate the time for extended, family vacations.

"Park officials fear trend toward The Great Indoors," trumpeted a headline in a recent edition of the Boston Globe.

Alaska parks appear somewhat immune to the virtual phenomenon - perhaps because they are different from the rest of America, he added.

"Our surveys for years and years and years have said people come to Alaska for mountains, glaciers and wildlife," said Dave Worrell, communications director for the Alaska Travel Industry Association.

Not many other parks offer these attractions. The boom and spectacle of calving glaciers, for instance may produce enough action to overwhelm even the trendiest digital attractions.

Marketing trends

And both Worrell, who works for an organization that favors park promotion over protection, and Stratton, who works for a group that favors park protection over promotion, say artful pitching of these assets is a key reason for steady growth in park tourism in Alaska.

"I think it's because the cruise-ship industry and the package-tour industry do such a good job of marketing Alaska," Stratton said.

Some Alaskans might not exactly like that. After all, many Alaskans take their visiting relatives to Denali National Park and Preserve to see the sights but tend to avoid the park as too crowded themselves, Stratton noted. But the marketing helps support a tourism economy that generates more than $126 million a year in area benefits and almost 3,000 local jobs, according to a new Park Service study.

Clearly, adds Alaska park service spokesman John Quinley, the numbers indicate marketing matters.

"Location, location, location," said Daryl Miller, a Talkeetna-based ranger for Denali Park, "it's all about location."

Miller has watched Denali park growth transform Talkeetna from a sleepy, little village near the confluence of the Susitna, Chulitna and Talkeetna rivers into a booming summer tourism attraction.

Package deal

Coordinating a two- to three-week drive up the Alaska Highway to the 49th state and back home takes significant planning and a fair amount of pre-trip effort - time-consuming tasks that seem to be discouraging visits to some Lower 48 parks.

At Denali, Quinley said, "the tours - the long one out toward Eielson (visitor center) and the short 'natural history' tour to Mile 17 or so - are essentially sold out, running at 99 capacity. These are typically bought by visitors who are booking through a cruise/land-package company. About 70 percent of Denali's 400,000 visitors come from (these) cruise-tour passengers."

The move to packaged park tours filled by people already on packaged tours leaves a lot of space available on park shuttle buses that used to be filled by independent travelers, Quinley added.

Worrell said he would not be surprised to see independent travel in Alaska surge in the next decade as the baby-boomers start retiring.

These are the people, he said, who own the big recreational vehicle, but lack the time to take it on an extended trip. Alaska, with its over-sized attractions, might turn out to be just the dream summer vacation spot.

"What there is here, you can't find anywhere else," Stratton added. "The Wrangells are six Yellowstones."

Not to mention a whole different world.

Yellowstone might well have reached its visitor capacity at nearly 3 million people per year.

But Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is clearly in its tourism infancy with less than 60,000 visitors - 1/500th as many in six times the space - per year.

By many standards, in fact, Wrangell-St. Elias isn't just a national park, it's an undiscovered national park. The same holds true for many of Alaska's other national parks despite two decades of increasing use.

Attracting young adults

As Blaszak noted in testimony to Congress back in April, "people from their mid-teens to mid-30s dropped (nationally) from 27 percent of park visitors in 1989 to 19 percent in 2004, a level significantly below the corresponding percentage in the U.S. population.

"We need to understand the reasons for this declining visitation rate among young adults, and ... develop ways to engage a physically active younger generation in the adventure, discovery and recreational opportunities offered by national parks."

Unless, of course, Alaskans just want to keep the state's 15 national park units covering 54 million acres of land to themselves.

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