Tourism on rebound from 2009 low

After a decline in tourist visits in 2009 and 2010, Alaska has seen a general increase in overall visits, especially among cruise ship passengers. However, there has been a steady downturn among ferry and highway visitors.
Those were some of the highlights of an update on tourism by officials at the Industry Outlook Forum held Jan. 31-Feb. 1 at Land’s End Resort.
Ron Peck, the president of the Alaska Tourism Industry Association, gave his last talk at the forum. Peck is moving to Walla Walla, Wash.
“I can tell you what I really think now, because I’m not working for ATIA now,” he said.
He presented these numbers:
* Cruise visitor numbers peaked at 1.03 million in 2009, dropped to 880,000 in 2010 and 2011, and rose to 940,000 in 2012, with a projected 1 million visitors for 2013.
* Air visitors peaked at 597,000 in 2008, dropped to 505,000 in 2010, and rose to 605,000 in 2011, with a drop to 581,000 last year.
* Ferry and highway visitors have generally declined, from a peak of 109,000 in 2004, dropping to 70,000 in 2009 and even lower, to 69,000, in 2011 and 2012, after an increase to 76,000 in 2010.
Kathy Dunn, tourism marketing manager for the Alaska Department of Commerce and Economic Development, added this information to Peck’s talk:
* Visitors for all markets still have not recovered from a peak of 1.7 million in 2007, but have been on the upswing since 2010, with 1.6 million visitors last year.
* The tourist industry resulted in 45,000 jobs and $3.7 billion in spending for 2012.
* Visitor-related revenues, from car rental taxes to cruise ship passenger head taxes, bring in about $118 million yearly, based on figures from 2008 to 2011.
“We all know oil is king, but nobody should say the visitor industry isn’t making a contribution to the state’s general fund,” Peck said.
Although Alaska is seeing more cruise ship visitors, they won’t be visiting Homer this summer or the near future, said Ralph Samuels, Holland America vice president of government and corporate communications.
Holland America had announced last year that 2012 would be the last year of its 14-day cruises that included Homer, Anchorage and Kodiak. Although popular with visitors, Samuels said that because of high fuel costs, the longer cruise isn’t economical.
“It had nothing to do with Homer,” Samuels said in an interview after his talk. “The visitors liked it. … What does Homer have? It’s quaint, but it’s hard to get to.”
Samuels said Holland America will release its 2014 schedule soon, but as of press time had not done so.
Norwegian Cruise Line will be offering a 13-day land tour billed as an “authentic Alaska” tour that includes an overnight stay in Homer.
Peck said Homer could become a cruise ship destination again with smaller cruise ships.
“There’s continued opportunity for that small-ship cruise ship experience in Alaska for ports like Homer,” Peck said.
As global climate change leads to the Northwest Passage becoming more ice-free in some summer months, that could even lead to adventure cruises in the passage, Peck said. With almost no infrastructure, large ships aren’t likely to take the trip.
“It’s a long haul. From a small-ship standpoint, there’s some opportunity,” Peck said.
The decline in visits by ferry and the Alaska Highway represent a challenge, Peck and Dunn both said.
“The folks that are coming this way are getting a little older, and it’s getting harder to come,” Peck said.
Through its marketing efforts, Alaska is working with the Canadian provinces of Alberta, the Yukon Territory and British Columbia on a North to Alaska Highway Guide to promote driving to Alaska as “the ultimate North American road trip,” Dunn said.
Peck said one approach is to target Baby Boomers in the motorcycle long-haul market.
“Those guys who just bought their Harley or their BMW and they’ve got to do something unique,” he said.
With Alaska’s wilderness and natural environment, it’s also attractive to that post-World War II generation, Peck said.
“As the boomers continue to live their stressful lives, there’s opportunity for that target market,” he said.
Visits by several generations of families have been on the increase, Peck noted.
“Grandma and grandpa will take their sons, daughters and grandchildren on a multi-day trip,” he said. “Alaska is a great multi-generation tourism destination.”
That’s one of the fun parts of tourism marketing, Dunn said.
“Who doesn’t like to deliver dreams to people?” she said. “That’s what we get to do.”
Most of Samuels’ talk focused on the effect of Environmental Protection Agency emissions control areas that will require low-sulfur fuel for cruise ships in Alaska.
“We want to do anything we can to stop asthma and anything that can harm the environment,” he said. “We understand what the goal is.”
The rules would result in an $83 cost per passenger, he said, and up to $115 with more stringent low-sulfur fuel rules. Samuels was critical of the need for low-sulfur rules, saying Holland America had not seen studies done showing the environmental benefits.
Peck also voiced support for another issue, changing cruise ship wastewater discharge rules. The 2006 citizen initiative that created a head tax also tightened up wastewater discharge rules.
“We held the cruise industry to a higher standard than anybody else in the state,
including the ferry system and municipalities,” Peck said.
ATIA passed a resolution supporting a change in those guidelines, Peck said. The Alaska House recently passed on a 27-10 vote House Bill 80, which would set discharge standards for a mixing zone and not at the point of discharge. Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, voted against the bill. The Senate is considering the bill.
Peck said the percentage of international visitors has increased, and could increase more with a recent announcement by Icelandair that starting May 15 it will offer nonstop, 7-hour flights from Reykjavik to Anchorage — a shorter flight than to Houston and half the 21-hour flight from London to Anchorage. Reykjavik’s airport also connects to more than 20 airports in the United Kingdom, Europe and Scandinavia, potentially bringing in more foreign visitors.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at