Alaska operators target wild areas

JUNEAU, Alaska -- As mass markets go, there is little room for huge tourism or infrastructure growth in Alaska in the decades ahead.

During the state's (at best) five-month season, the Inside Passage and Gulf of Alaska ports are stretched almost to overflowing by rubbernecking cruise passengers. The growth in the number of cruise passengers -- there are about 700,000 cruisers per year -- will slow, some observers feel, for that very reason.

Ships are getting bigger, but with so many of them in the 2,000-passenger range, they may have just about reached their limit in Alaska.

Out of season, when the cold weather sets in, there is little incentive for hoteliers, transportation operators, sightseeing companies and others to beef up -- or even to continue to operate -- their services.

Between May and September, only in the wilderness and in the small communities is there a real possibility of increasing visitor volume, but, by definition, these can hardly remain wilderness and small communities if they attract too many visitors too quickly.

Nevertheless, it is to these areas that Alaska operators look to maintain growth, if not by bringing in more people then by extending the length of visitor stays.

"These are not mass-market destinations. But, if we develop enough of them, even slowly and in low numbers, we can continue to grow." said Charlie Ball, vice president of Alaska tour marketing and sales of Holland America Westours.

"That's how we have to go from here," he said. "We have to 'finger out' itineraries from the traditional routings and get cruise-tour passengers to stay an extra day or two."

Ball pointed to the south Denali region and specifically the township of Talkeetna as a promising expansion area. "Talkeetna is a great little town," he said. "It offers jet boat tours and wildlife viewing, and its hotel inventory has potential for expansion.

"The number of rooms could rise by 50% without having a negative impact on the lifestyle," he added.

"More soft-adventure tours, more car rental-based tours, the Wrangell/St. Elias wilderness, the Kachemak Bay community of Homer, the Kenai Peninsula ...these are the other likely tourism growth areas in the first decade of the new century," according to the Westours executive.

Dave Knightly, whose Seattle-based Knightly Tours specializes in independent travel in Alaska, agreed with Ball's assessment of the potential for growth in off-the-beaten path destinations.

"People are becoming interested in places like Kantishna and Talkeetna and other small towns," Knightly said.

"I expect that to continue in the years ahead, even though these places can never be mass-market destinations.

"The small-ship market is a likely expansion sector in the early years of the millennium. Those kind of ships -- Glacier Bay Tours and Cruises-style vessels, with fewer than 100 passengers -- are becoming more popular," Knightly said.

But don't look for much of an increase in tourism volume in the major population centers, according to Knightly. "Among destinations, I don't see huge growth in travel to the Inside Passage ports -- Ketchikan, Juneau and the like -- which are barely able to handle the cruise traffic now," he said.

A Princess Cruises and Tours spokesman offered Denali National Park as an example of destinations that will continue to grow in popularity from 2000 into the future. "Denali and Kenai are two areas that we believe can maintain the public's interest," the spokesman said.

"With the expansion of the McKinley Lodge, for example, we have been able to offer a two-night package, one night at the Denali Lodge, the other at the McKinley Lodge. That has become very popular and is the kind of thing that will most easily help us to grow our business in Alaska in the years ahead," he added.

Robert Dindinger's Redmond, Wash.-based Alaska Travel Adventures has interests in recreational vehicle rentals, RV parks, fishing lodges, sightseeing coaches and day boats.

He said he believes the Alaska product has been diversifying rapidly and will continue to do so, given a changing political climate that might open up more areas of the state to tourism.

"Access is an ugly word in some circles," he said. "Everything that's been done in tourism recently that required access to new areas has been hard fought.

"But we've won a few times," he said, "and we'll win again."

One area that Dindinger said he feels has great potential as a tourist draw is the Wrangell/St. Elias National Park.

From the point of view of product, Dindinger said that Alaska tourism entities have begun to identify markets and promote products more effectively.

"Our Alaska Highway Cruises, which combines a cruise with a motor home package, wouldn't have been possible 10 years ago," he said. "It would have been too tough to identify the market and too expensive to reach it. Now, it's a profitable part of our business. The ability to identify and reach new market segments is easier now, and that's good for prospects in the years ahead."

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