Alaska Cruise Attracts Younger Visitors

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Travel Weekly's assistant managing editor of custom publishing, Joe Manuelli, visited Alaska and Canada's Yukon Territory on a 12-day Holland America Line-Westours trip last summer. His report follows:

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The profile of the Alaska tourist is changing.

People no longer wait until their golden years before visiting the 49th state. Baby boomers have discovered the place. Now, people are vacationing in the Great Land earlier in their lives.

Catering to this younger set, Holland America Line-Westours has been developing itineraries with an emphasis on soft adventure activities.

My Denali Gold Rush tour, which kicked off with a three-night Statendam cruise from Vancouver, was one of 35 products in the operator's 50th anniversary catalog for 1997. The 1998 schedule is a repeat of this year's, and the firm has added escorted tours to its Yukon itineraries.

There are two basic tour classifications. One is known as the Gold Rush product and includes Canada's Yukon Territory, whose Klondike gold triggered an unprecedented stampede of prospectors a century ago. The other is called Great Land tours. These combine a cruise with an all-Alaska land package.

All but two of Holland America-Westours' itineraries feature the immensely popular Denali National Park.

Because of the great distances and travel time involved in Alaska/Yukon touring, agents should note that daily departures often are early in the morning. And itineraries can be tighter than those of a standard cruise product, permitting little room for deviation.

Most North Country destinations I visited showed evidence of tourism growth. Every overnight stop we visited -- Juneau, Skagway, Whitehorse, Dawson, Fairbanks, Denali and Anchorage -- featured at least one new attraction.

Although growth is often attributed to the increasing number of ships funneling travelers into the state, retailers should note that cruise industry discounting also was a factor last spring, as it has been for several years.

As HAL and other Alaska operators begin to tap the developing baby-boomer market, they increasingly find themselves discovering or, in many cases, developing new tourism amenities.

Encouraged by increased visitor levels, federal authorities in both the U.S. and Canada are becoming critical components in attraction development, finding themselves in the midst of an explosion of tourism-based construction.

Realizing the value of the Gold Rush legacy (1998 will be the 100th anniversary of the stampede), more than a half-dozen government-supported renovation projects are being undertaken between Skagway, in southeast Alaska, and Dawson, in the Yukon.

In Skagway, the paint still is drying on National Park Service projects that include renovations of the cabin of that town's founder, William Moore, and additions to its visitor center.

Parks Canada is actively developing projects in Carcross, Yukon Territory, where in the winter and early spring of 1898, those who successfully transported their provisions over steep mountain passes began building boats for the downriver trip to the goldfields.

Among the projects are a new geological museum in Whitehorse and numerous restorations in Dawson. Dawson, the final destination of those original stampeders, retains a number of the original structures from its turn-of-the-century, gold-fueled building spree.

Overall, there are few tourism destinations where government and private industry seem to be so much in sync. In Skagway, I saw the results of the greatest construction boom since the town was founded.

Word along the main street of Broadway is that at least 15 new retailers opened shops this year. This town probably is neck and neck with Juneau as a cruiser's shopping mecca.

(For better or worse, tiny Skagway now has some favorite stores of Caribbean ports of call, Little Switzerland and Columbia Emeralds International.)

In other developments, Holland America Line-Westours introduced a comprehensive gold-dredge attraction near Fairbanks, is making improvements to its Westmark Fairbanks hotel and is beefing up its Gold Rush product line.

HAL-Westours already had funded improvements for the University of Fairbanks museum and fostered the development of a breeding-stock farm (the misnamed Yukon Wildlife Preserve) on the outskirts of Whitehorse.

Despite the fact that this exclusive attraction for HAL visitors figured in a controversial advertising battle with archrival, Princess Tours, the views of penned-in native animals were a big hit with the vacationers on our tour.

And, for the vast, remote Yukon Territory, HAL-Westours wisely has developed this attraction as a welcome break from long stretches of motorcoach travel. In the future, it seems certain, some of the HAL-owned land operations also will offer entertainment shows.

New visitors to Alaska may be surprised by the plethora of evening entertainment available on cruise-tour agendas, apart from on-board shows. Vaudeville is alive and well in the North Country, in a number of small theaters and saloons.

Many of the skits are based on historical characters such as Skagway's legendary outlaw Soapy Smith, Dawson's saloon dancer Diamond Tooth Gertie and the Klondike's Bard of the North, Robert Service. Others playfully poke fun at such revered institutions as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Another trend includes the addition of dogsled racing exhibits by operators serving the summer trade. Iditarod and Yukon Quest winners and their dog teams are featured at the Riverboat Discovery operation in Fairbanks and by Aramark Leisure Services, the company that has tours and lodging facilities inside Denali National Park. Just outside Anchorage, the little town of Knik is fast becoming known as the home of the Sled Dog Musher's Hall of Fame.

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