GIRDWOOD - The desire to see Alaska's mountains, glaciers and wildlife drew about 1.4 million visitors to the state during the 2004 summer tourist season, up about 100,000 tourists from the previous year, industry leaders announced Tuesday.
Alaska tourism is trying to keep pace with the ever-changing tastes and buying habits of travelers, who want more authentic vacation experiences and are more savvy about searching for deals online, said Ron Peck, president and chief operating officer of the Alaska Travel Industry Association.
"We're not seeing a shift in where they want to go, but they want it to be more experiential," he said.
"They don't want to go to a place just to visit. They want to learn about our history and culture, including our Native culture and our Russian heritage," Peck said at the industry's annual convention.
About 876,000 tourists viewed the state in 2004 by cruise ship, the association said. Another 574,500 entered the state by plane or drove across the Alaska-Canada border.
Estimates for this past summer are more than 1.5 million visitors, Peck said.
He said tourists spent about $1.5 billion in the state in 2002, the latest figure available.
Marketers said they are trying to entice people to stay longer in Alaska because the state is too remote to serve as a casual weekend destination. A one-way flight from Seattle to Anchorage takes about three hours.
"One of our specific objectives is to get people to stay longer because you can't see Alaska even in seven days," Peck said.
International visitors with more allotted vacation time than Americans often stay longest in Alaska.
"One of the reasons we love the Germans and the Australians is they come forever," Peck said. "And they spend lots of money."
Japanese visitors also make up a large chunk of the state's tourism numbers, especially during winter in Fairbanks, when the Northern Lights wash over the darkened sky.
"Japan is the biggest winter international market," said Colin Lawrence, tourism manager of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The number of Japanese visiting Fairbanks has declined in recent years, but tourism leaders there are working to bring them back.
Japan Airlines is dispatching about a half-dozen 747 charter flights from Tokyo to Fairbanks this winter, up from three last year, Lawrence said. Each flight seats about 300 people.
The state's travel industry would do well to prepare for a flood of tourists from China in the next few years, travel experts say. As its economy grows, China's citizens will eventually make up the largest segment of tourists in the world, according to Keith Bellows, editor-in-chief at National Geographic Traveler.
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