Alaska anticipates a flat tourist season
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — With runaway fuel prices, it's somehow fitting that Jim and Wilma Fowler's Airstream Safari sports a green sign, "Alaska or Bust," on the back window of the 25-foot travel trailer.
The couple's friends were flabbergasted that they were driving 3,800 miles to Alaska from Oak Park, Calif., for a three-month trek in their son's adopted state. Still early in their sojourn, the Fowlers have put in 5,000 miles and paid $2,300 for the diesel fueling their Ford F20 — and they're not "busted" yet, said Jim Fowler, 70, a retired aerospace worker.
"It's getting closer every day, though," he laughed at an Anchorage RV park.
"It really hurts to have to pay that, but what do you do? We're not filthy rich, but we're lucky enough to afford to do this within limitations."
Alaska's tourism leaders anticipate many more like-minded travelers to a state where summer visitors far outnumber its population of 640,000. But with burgeoning oil prices and the U.S. toying with a recession, Alaska's second largest private industry would be lucky to break even with last year's record season, which saw 1.7 million-plus visitors who spent more than $1.5 billion in the state, according to the Alaska Travel Industry Association.
"I'm concerned. If we are flat overall, I would be pleased," said association president Ron Peck. "I hope we reach the same level as last year. If I'm wrong and we get above that, I'll be tickled pink. But I would not bet my next born child that we are going to have an increase in visitors."
For many travelers, however, the nation's largest state is a once-in-a-lifetime dream vacation that can take years to plan and save for. It's a destination packed with opportunities to see moose, bears, caribou, bald eagles and whales, a hunting and fishing Mecca, a frontier full of glaciers, mountains, fjords, outdoor adventures and Alaska Native culture.
Many tourism businesses are banking on that mystique to keep Alaska from joining a national trend that has folks staying closer to home. A random sampling of hotels and B&Bs suggests a solid summer, although the Bed and Breakfast Association of Alaska estimates that bookings among its members are down by as much as 20 percent.
Particularly optimistic are wilderness guides catering to well-heeled clients.
Hugh Rose, a Fairbanks-based photographer and guide, said he is booked solid for 11 excursions, which can run as high as $8,300 for a 20-day trip that includes treks at Prudhoe Bay, Prince William Sound and Denali National Park and Preserve. He said he's already filled all seven slots for that trip in 2009 and people are waiting for him to set dates for 2010 so they can put down their $500 deposits.
"The clientele I deal with is, for the most part, fairly upper end," Rose said. "The mortgage crisis did not affect them because their house is paid for. They are upper middle class and retired."
Some businesses are seeing more foreign travelers taking advantage of the sagging dollar. For that same reason, Alaska can attract Americans forgoing overseas trips, according to the Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"Unlike other parts of the U.S., we have the exotic appeal, but we're a domestic destination," said spokeswoman Shelly Wozniak. "That's a boon for us."
Cruise ship passengers, the backbone of Alaska's travel industry, are expected to remain on par with last year's numbers — slightly more than 1 million. But that's because the cabin capacity remains unchanged and cruise line companies offer deep discounts when necessary to fill their rooms, said John Binkley, president of the Alaska Cruise Association.
Binkley expects spending will be down away from the ships, with passengers buying fewer souvenirs and taking fewer, less expensive, shore excursions.
"It might seem that the numbers look good, but the economic impact is not as good," he said.
Binkley said bookings are down about 10 percent in his family's Fairbanks-based business, Riverboat Discovery, which offers sternwheeler day tours on the Chena and Tanana rivers.
Also down are campground bookings, if two RV parks owned by Scott Reisland in Denali National Park and Preserve are any indication. Bookings of caravans — groups of RVs traveling together — are down 50 percent and there have been a lot of cancelations, Reisland said.
Bookings are up slightly at his 105-room Denali Grizzly Bear Resort, which caters to independent travelers. This year he's seeing more Europeans booking rooms and RV spaces.
"But I still think it's going to be a bad year for the state, for highway RV traffic," he said.
Fuel prices — approaching the $4 a gallon mark for regular unleaded nationwide — could be a significant deterrent, judging by an industry consumer study of people interested in driving to Alaska through Canada. Six percent of the respondents said gas prices would be a deterrent in the fall of 2006, when the national average for unleaded was just under $2.25 a gallon. A year later, when the national average for unleaded was inching toward $3 a gallon, the number had jumped to 21 percent.
Still, workers at the visitor center in Tok — the first major Alaska community after crossing the Canadian border — say they're seeing the same level of RVs as they did last summer. Some RV rental companies are, too.
ABC Motorhome Rentals in Anchorage is offering fuel credits of up to $250 and expects to match last summer's bookings, which accounted for nearly 3,400 RV rentals. Much of the business coming to the company in the last couple years is from RV owners, said counter manager Kerri Schiavi. They're opting to fly here for the trip they've waited so long to take.
"A lot of people don't want to put it off," Schiavi said. "They're not letting a few hundred dollars difference stop them."
Not yet anyway.
This summer looks promising for Dan Oberlatz, owner of guiding company Alaska Alpine Adventures, which is an affiliate of outdoor gear retailer Recreational Equipment Inc. and also runs other guided tours. Oberlatz, however, said he set his fees a year ago, never imagining fuel prices would skyrocket, inflating the cost of ferrying clients in vans and air taxis.
He plans to raise next year's prices on the assumption the cost of fuel will keep climbing.
"If the recession continues, if gas prices continue to go up, 2009 could be the year of reckoning for Alaska tourism," he said.
On the Net: www.alaskatia.org http:akcruise.org www.anchorage.net www.alaskabba.com