Domestic, distanced, outdoors: Alaska tours are a hot ticket

Denali National Park and Preserve.
Denali National Park and Preserve. Photo Credit: Galyna Andrushko via Insight Vacations

With the Alaska cruise season and prospects for international travel this summer still uncertain, tour operators say Alaska land packages are one of that season's hottest sellers.

Insight Vacations president Jon Grutzner said they have almost sold out their Alaska tours and are preparing to add more.

"We have an Alaska-by-land program called Jewels of Alaska," he said. "That's never been one of our top-selling trips. But this year ... we've had a huge influx. About three-fold more than the typical year on inquiries. It's been pretty dramatic."

Delta Air Lines also this month announced it was adding a host of new flights to the Frontier State. And Carnival Corp., the parent of Holland America Line and Princess Cruises, the two largest cruise operators in the state, said it is committed to opening at least some of its land operations, even though a Canadian ban on cruise ships, in combination with the Passenger Vessel Services Act, has all but officially canceled the season for large ships.

The state has lifted its once-strict testing and quarantine requirements, which largely shuttered group tours in Alaska last year. Travel companies, at least those in the interior of the state, are hopeful about a tourism recovery.

At Tauck, CEO Dan Mahar said Alaska is already more than 60% sold for the season, "and we are adding capacity, as we expect strong sales.

"We're sorry to see the decision which impacted the Alaska cruise season," he added. "Tauck has both sea and land programs in Alaska, and we and our guests are disappointed our cruise/tour programs will not operate in summer 2021."

But the Tauck land program, Mahar said, is "wonderful. My family and I journeyed on this program a few years back, and it's such a delight, with a great blend of adventure -- flightseeing, fishing, rafting, dog-sledding and more -- and beautiful vistas and meeting the locals."

Abercrombie & Kent said it has also seen increased interest for both FIT and small-group tours to the state, with family travel especially popular.

"Just last week, we added two departures of our family small-group program, Family Alaska," said company spokeswoman Jean Fawcett. "Over the past year, a lot of families have embraced spending time outdoors and are looking for new adventures far from home."

Guests boarding a flightseeing plane in Anchorage on an Abercrombie & Kent tour.
Guests boarding a flightseeing plane in Anchorage on an Abercrombie & Kent tour.

Large-ship operators are holding out hope that they can salvage at least some of the Alaska cruise season this summer, but Jan Swartz, Holland America Line group president, said that even if they can't sail, the company is committed to opening some land operations.

"Princess Cruises has sailed to Alaska for more than 50 years, and the incredible Last Frontier is part of our proud heritage," she said in a statement. "We understand how much of Alaska is dependent on the cruise economy. We are going to do all we can to help our business partners and the communities of Alaska."

Ball talks about the ban on cruising in Alaska and the company's decision to offer a season of land programs, with or without cruising.

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Both Princess and Holland America have offered Alaska land tours for decades, mostly on trips that combine a cruise with either a pre- or post-sailing tour. 

There are five Princess Alaska Lodges and six Holland America Line Westmark Hotels throughout the state. As of now, only the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel & Conference Center, Holland America Line's McKinley Chalet Resort at Denali National Park and Preserve and the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge are scheduled to open. Princess and Holland America plan to offer tours in Kenai, Anchorage, Denali and Fairbanks via their Gray Line Alaska tour company.

While Alaska-focused advisors commended the move, some said it would not necessarily appeal to those who would have normally cruised this summer.

Tom Garrett, a former director of tourism for Alaska who now owns Union Hill Travel in Kansas City, Mo., and specializes in travel to Alaska, called the decision "great for the state," if not for his cruising clientele.

"Not being able to cruise means missing out on one of the most scenic parts of Alaska -- southeast -- and missing completely the massive glaciers of Glacier Bay or Hubbard Glacier. These are key things people want to see in Alaska," he said. "It also means missing out on the cruise experience itself, which is one of the reasons people cruise in the first place."

Garrett, who also formerly worked in marketing for YMT Vacations and sold land-only bus tours as well as cruises, said that in his experience, "the customers who took the bus tours were completely different from the ones who took cruises. Sometimes there was crossover, but they have different desires and expectations from their vacations."

Most of the land tours are also heavily focused on the interior, meaning cruise-dependent ports in the southeast like Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan are facing another rough year.

But unlike last year, said Nate Vallier, president of Alaska & Yukon Tours, cruise-dependent operators who normally offer only group or full charters for activities such as whale-watching and fishing will instead sell their products by the seat to attract independent travelers this season. Visitors "will find pricing more in line with what they expect."

"That was our challenge last summer," he added, noting boat charters run about $900.

One of this year's challenges, he said, lies in reaching those independent travelers who are researching trips on their own.

After losing more than 90% of its visitors last year, Vallier said the region will be happy to regain "even 10%."

"Our phones are now ringing, which they weren't all winter," he said. "The best thing that can happen for us is that international borders stay closed and keeps everyone coming for the summer." 

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