FAIRBANKS - More Japanese tourists than ever are expected to visit Alaska's Interior this winter to take in the aurora borealis.
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Japan Airlines announced plans to increase the number of direct flights to Fairbanks to 16, bringing as many as 5,500 visitors from that country. That's about 2,000 more tourists than the airline brought last winter.
The flights will depart from Tokyo and Osaka and include two exclusive charters from the major cities of Fukuoka and Nagoya through Hankyu Express International. The flights run through March.
Entering its fourth winter flying Japanese tourists to the Interior, the airline began with three flights in 2004, increased to seven in 2005 and then to 10 flights this past winter.
"All of us have been working on selling these flights, and in many cases it's a cooperative effort," said Deb Hickok, president of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Winter tourism to Fairbanks was once considered ludicrous because of the cold weather and short days. But it is an increasingly important segment of the local tourism industry - 56,000 visitors came to Fairbanks in the fall and winter of 2006 for business and pleasure, according to a state-sponsored survey conducted last year.
The Japanese travel industry features tour packages that include flights, hotels, transportation and activities, such as stops at the Aurora Borealis Lodge on Cleary Summit.
"It's made quite a difference," said Mok Kumagai, co-owner of the lodge.
Before the flights began, Kumagai had 300 guests for the winter season. After the first year of the flights from Japan, the number increased to 1,000 guests. Kimagai said more guests come back year after year.
"The aurora is always something people have been fascinated by. But before the flights, Alaska was always so far," Kumagai said.
By flying directly into Fairbanks, Japan Airlines shaved about 11 hours off a one-way trip.