Tourism leaders expect flat visitor season in Alaska

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - With runaway fuel prices, it's somehow fitting that Jim and Wilma Fowler's Airstream Safari sports a green sign, "Alaska or Bust," on the back window of the 25-foot travel trailer.

Tourism leaders expect flat visitor season in Alaska

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – With runaway fuel prices, it’s somehow fitting that Jim and Wilma Fowler’s Airstream Safari sports a green sign, “Alaska or Bust,” on the back window of the 25-foot travel trailer.

The couple’s friends were flabbergasted that they were driving 3,800 miles to Alaska from Oak Park, Calif., for a three-month trek in their son’s adopted state. Still early in their sojourn, the Fowlers have put in 5,000 miles and paid $2,300 for the diesel fueling their Ford F20.

“It really hurts to have to pay that, but what do you do?” said Jim Fowler, 70, a retired aerospace worker. “We’re not filthy rich, but we’re lucky enough to afford to do this within limitations.”

Alaska’s tourism leaders anticipate more like-minded travelers to a state where summer visitors far outnumber its population of 640,000. But with burgeoning oil prices and the United States toying with a recession, Alaska tourism — the state’s second largest private industry – would be lucky to break even with last year’s record season, which saw 1.7 million-plus visitors who spent more than $1.5 billion in the state, according to the Alaska Travel Industry Association.

“I’m concerned. If we are flat overall, I would be pleased,” said association president Ron Peck. “But I would not bet my next-born child that we are going to have an increase in visitors.”

For many travelers, however, the nation’s largest state is a once-in-a-lifetime dream vacation that can take years to plan and save for. It’s a destination packed with opportunities to see moose, bears, caribou, bald eagles, glaciers, mountains, fjords and Alaska Native culture.

Many tourism businesses are banking on that mystique to keep Alaska from joining a national trend that has folks staying closer to home. A random sampling of hotels and B&Bs suggests a solid summer, although the Bed and Breakfast Association of Alaska estimates that bookings among its members are down by as much as 20 percent.

Particularly optimistic are wilderness guides catering to well-heeled clients.

Hugh Rose, a Fairbanks-based photographer and guide, said he is booked solid for 11 excursions, which can run as high as $8,300 for a 20-day trip that includes treks to Denali National Park and Preserve.

Some businesses are seeing more foreign travelers taking advantage of the sagging dollar. Also cruise ship passengers, the backbone of Alaska’s travel industry, are expected to remain on par with last year’s numbers — slightly more than 1 million.

But John Binkley, president of the Alaska Cruise Association, expects spending will be down away from the ships, with passengers buying fewer souvenirs and taking fewer shore excursions.

Mr. Binkley said bookings are down about 10 percent in his family’s Fairbanks-based business, Riverboat Discovery, which offers sternwheeler day tours on the Chena and Tanana rivers. Also down are campground bookings.

This summer looks promising for Dan Oberlatz, owner of guiding company Alaska Alpine Adventures, although he set his fees a year ago, never imagining fuel prices would skyrocket. He plans to raise next year’s prices on the assumption the cost of fuel will keep climbing.

“If the recession continues, if gas prices continue to go up, 2009 could be the year of reckoning for Alaska tourism,” he said.

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