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
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
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
"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
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
"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."