Alaska tourism industry sees jump in visitors

Posted: Sunday, September 12, 2010

FAIRBANKS - Tourism is showing some improvement in Alaska this year despite the sluggish economy.

Indicators that include tour group numbers, hotel vacancies, customer spending and bed taxes suggest that tourism is better than last year, according to Deb Hickok, president of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"Businesses with a mix of clients, that have independent travelers as well as some group tours, including cruises, and tourists visiting friends and family, and some local traffic, in general have fared better in 2010 than in 2009," Hickok told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Hickok noted one trend in the improved numbers - visitors seem to be coming from different areas and waiting longer to book their trips.

"This year it was really late," she said. "Typically people start planning an Alaska vacation and some of the companies see bookings in September through November. But for the last two or three years, it's been really a change."

One indicator of improvement was the bed tax, which is back to 2008 levels, said Pat Cole, chief of staff for the city of Fairbanks.

The city hit $1.5 million in bed tax revenue by the end of August, up $200,000 from revenue at the same time last year.

"In 2010 there were a lot of weeks we were looking for vacancies in hotels," said Hickok, a positive sign that hotels were close to full.

Some local attractions also had late bookings.

"Usually we have 'x' amount of rooms booked. This year, people were waiting for the deals," said Lloyd Huskey, director of marketing at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

The museum received about 60,000 visitors this season, only marginally higher than last year, when visits plunged about 30 percent.

"The bright spot is they were spending money," Huskey said. "That was one thing that really surprised us. Our store was doing gangbusters."

Some business, however, were feeling the impact of a decision by cruise ship companies to divert three ships from Alaska this year.

"We have a lot of very successful businesses in this town that have built their business on the cruise model. They are either flat or down some," Hickok said.

The Riverboat Discovery and El Dorado Gold Mine, which receive the majority of customers from cruise ships, are down 10 percent from 2009 and 40 percent from 2008.

"I've been hearing people say they're up, but that's not the case again for us," said Ryan Binkley, president of the company.

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