1. 2011 forecast: What's ahead for Alaska's travel industry?
These days, Americans are hard-pressed to turn on their TVs without seeing images of Alaska. A spate of “reality” programming combined with several other factors mean 2011 is looking up for Alaska’s travel industry.
From crab fisherman in the Bering Sea, truckers in the arctic or even the state’s former governor felling timber in a logging camp, there’s more programming about Alaska on TV than ever before. Starting this fall, the Alaska Travel Industry Association was able to tag onto this reality-TV-inspired flood of images with its own new wave of advertising. ATIA launched three new TV ads in 2010 (the first new Alaska TV ads produced since 2003) with the help of additional funding allocated by Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell and the state legislature in recognition of the impact the weak economy was having on Alaska tourism.
“At this point, it’s pretty hard to turn on the TV without getting a taste for scenery, wildlife and unique culture,” said Ron Peck, president and COO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association. “As the economy slowly improves, we hope all this additional exposure will result in a resumption of growth for Alaska’s travel industry.”
Early bookings and research conducted by the Alaska Travel Industry Association are providing hope. Indicators on overall visitation are back to pre-2009 levels, which means the summer of 2011 should be better than that of 2010.
Overall visitation to the state for the summer of 2010 came in at 1.48 million, according to the travel association’s estimates. Overall visitor numbers have declined in recent years as several large cruise lines redeployed ships, formerly dedicated to Alaska, to other parts of the world. A slight capacity improvement of 7,500 berths is expected in 2011, while Princess Cruises has already announced it will bring 20,000 more berths in 2012. “We are hopeful that other announcements will be forthcoming,” Peck said.
So what can visitors to Alaska expect to see in 2011? Here is just a sample of new tours, products, facilities and events travelers can look forward to on their next Alaska vacation.
2. New products and tours
- Holland America Line has introduced a new Cruise Tour in 2011. The Bears & Wilderness Expedition Tour features a seven-day Glacier Discovery Cruise and retreats at rustic Redoubt Bay Lodge near Lake Clark National Park and Preserve (with plenty of sport fishing and bear viewing opportunities) and Winterlake Lodge along Alaska’s historic Iditarod Trail (where guests can experience helicopter glacier trekking, hiking, fishing and more). (www.hollandamerica.com)
- Princess Cruises has introduced a new Alaska cruisetour option just for fishing fans as part of the 2011 season. The new 14-day land/sea vacation includes special excursions just for anglers, inviting them to cast their lines in some of the state’s premier fishing spots, such as near Juneau for colossal halibut and on the Kenai Peninsula for record-breaking salmon. (www.princess.com)
- Tickets are now on sale for “Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age” exhibit at the Anchorage Museum running March 4 through Oct. 9, 2011. The exhibition features life-size models and skeletons, hands-on activities and some of the world’s oldest art. Also on display, a 40,000-year-old, intact baby mammoth specimen that is considered the best-preserved specimen of its kind. The Anchorage Museum recently achieved accreditation from the American Association of Museums, the highest national recognition for a museum and an honor shared by only 775 of the nation’s 1,500 museums. (www.AnchorageMuseum.org)
- New for 2011, all of Talkeetna Air Taxi's Mount McKinley flight tours will offer an optional translated flight narrative in Japanese or Korean. Open year round, Talkeetna Air Taxi offers flightseeing and glacier landings to Mount McKinley and the glaciers of Denali National Park and Preserve. (www.talkeetnaair.com)
- Riversong Lodge, located 70 air miles southwest of Anchorage, now offers a river excursion to remote homestead properties, giving guests a close-up look into modern-day life in rural Alaska. Accessible only by floatplane, Riversong Lodge is known for world-class salmon fishing and gourmet cuisine and was recently named one of “25 best lodges in America” by Travel + Leisure magazine.
- The new Ultimate Alaska Adventure tour offered by Alaska Wildland Adventures introduces guests to a combination of outdoor activities on the Kenai Peninsula including sea kayaking, dog sledding on a glacier, white-water rafting, horseback riding, flightseeing, hiking and more.
- Travelers can follow along with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from the trail with overnight Iditarod Adventures by Alaska Backcountry Access. Correlating with the race (beginning March 5) guests travel by snowmobile, tracked truck and commercial air service to visit various checkpoints along the 1,150-mile race. (www.akback.com)
- Alaska Backcountry Adventure Tours and Alaska Snow Safaris are teaming up to offer a new winter adventure, the Northern Lights Expedition. The multi-day snowmobile tour takes travelers miles into the lake country of the Mat-Su Valley with overnights in a cozy lodge on the Yentna River in prime positioning for northern lights viewing. (www.youralaskavacation.com)
- This winter, visitors to Valdez can rent ski equipment from the Valdez Wellness Center for free. The X-Country Ski and Snowshoe Loan Program in partnership with the Sound Wellness Alliance Network have cross-country skis, skate skis, snowshoes, boots, poles, headlamps and other gear available for two-day rental. (www.pwscc.edu/wellness.shtml)
- Lifetime Adventures Alaska is preparing to launch a new audio tour along Anchorage’s Tony Knowles Coastal Trail to accompany bikers, joggers or any type of traveler. Visitors can download the tour onto their mp3 players or rent iPods (and bikes, if they choose) uploaded with short descriptions and historical tidbits about the route, beginning in downtown Anchorage and following the 11-mile trail to Kincaid Park. (www.lifetimeadventures.net)
- A new three-night guided hiking trip with Rust’s Flying Service will allow visitors to explore Denali National Park from air and land. Departing by floatplane from Anchorage, guests land at a lake inside the national park near Ruth Glacier and spend four days learning the geology, biology and history of the area and skills needed for off-trail hiking. (www.flyrusts.com)
- Rust’s Flying Service also has two new five-night adventures to Lake Clark National Park departing from Anchorage. On the fly-in rafting trip, travelers paddle canoes in the glacier-fed Tlikikila River with multiple chances to hike through dry creek beds. The fly-in hiking adventure travels to Twin Lakes to enjoy the peace and solitude of the park by trail, including a visit to a hand-hewn log home. (www.flyrusts.com)
- K2 Aviation is offering a new Denali flightseeing/hiking trip in 2011. Departing from Talkeena, this three-hour trek is limited to six guests or less and combines a floatplane ride with a guided wilderness hike in Denali National Park. (www.flyk2.com)
- In 2011, Denali ATV Adventures will offer more chances for visitors to experience the Stampede Trail tour. The four-hour adventure highlights the same rugged trail taken by Chris McCandless, subject of the book and movie “Into the Wild,” and provides opportunities to view Mount McKinley, wildlife and more. (www.denaliatv.com)
- This winter, PAWS for Adventure not only will teach guests to drive their own team of sled dogs on multi-day tours out of Fairbanks, but also will host them overnight at the company’s newly acquired Tolovana Roadhouse, the first transfer point in the original lifesaving serum run to Nome, which the Iditarod celebrates.
- Visitors to Nome in mid-March can book a snow-cat tour to visit the final checkpoint of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The half-day snow cat tour will depart Nome and travel 26 miles east to the Bering Sea/Norton Sound coast to the Safety Roadhouse where visitors can watch racers entering their final checkpoint and may catch a glimpse of musk ox along the way. (www.beringstraits.com)
- New for the 2011 summer season, Alaskan Northwest Adventures will operate five-hour birding tours on the waters of Safety Sound near Nome in 2011. Safety Sound is known as a premier spot to view many of the migratory birds that nest near Nome on their way further north or inland. Located in White Mountain, 75 miles northeast of Nome, Alaskan Northwest Adventures also offers grayling fishing charters along the Niukluk River.
- InnerSea Discoveries, the newly launched sister brand to high-end American Safari Cruises, will begin plying Alaska’s waters in May 2011. Weeklong adventures between Ketchikan and Juneau and two-week itineraries between Seattle and Juneau will be offered aboard two newly refurbished ships holding just 49 guests for a more close-up, nature-rich experience.
- Alaska Sea Adventures will begin offering travelers the rare chance to be involved with a sea otter research project in May 2011. Participants can choose between two departures from Petersburg and spend six days observing and assisting researchers as they learn about sea otter habits and will be able to view and photograph sea otters up close. (www.yachtalaska.com)
- Alaska-based Allen Marine Tours is launching a new small-ship cruise line, Alaskan Dream Cruises, in May 2011. Featuring two former Cruise West ships, the new cruise line will focus on wildlife, culture and sustainable travel with eight-day trips from Sitka with stops at Inside Passage destinations such as Icy Strait Point, Point Adolphus, Hobart Bay, Tracy Arm and Glacier Bay National Park. (www.allenmarinetours.com)
- Beginning in summer 2011, the Alaska Marine Highway will offer weekly service to the community of Gustavus, the internationally recognized gateway to Glacier Bay National Park. (www.FerryAlaska.com)
- Additionally, the Alaska Marine Highway will begin a new cross-gulf express service in May, providing passage between Bellingham, Washington and Alaska’s Inside passage before continuing across the Gulf of Alaska to Whittier, Homer or as far west as Kodiak. (www.FerryAlaska.com)
- Above and Beyond Alaska in Juneau adds kayak access to its glacier camping adventure in 2011. Previously accessed via helicopter or a long hike, guests will be able to kayak across the iceberg-laden Mendenhall Lake and trek across the Mendenhall Glacier to their campsite. (www.beyondak.com)
- Juneau visitors can enjoy an enhanced tour of the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery in 2011, allowing access to areas normally reserved only for staff. The Nooks and Crannies tour will take guests into the incubation room where salmon eggs hatch and spend the winter before being released in the spring. They’ll also visit the raceway room where hundreds of thousands of tiny king salmon mature to readiness for saltwater. (www.dipac.net)
- Weather Permitting Alaska, a tour company based in Juneau, is offering the chance for travelers to “Tour with a Celebrity.” For an additional fare, well-known Alaskan experts accompany guests along on their whale watching or hiking adventures while sharing incredible stories, experiences and expertise along the way. (www.weatherpermittingalaska.com)
- Adding to its selection of wedding adventures, Pearson’s Pond Luxury Inn and Adventure Spa has added a dog sledding excursion to the popular glacier wedding option. Guests will access the wedding site via helicopter, then helicopter again to the dog sledding camp for a mushing adventure. Pearson’s Pond has also expanded its spa services, adding a new outdoor sauna and a remodeled two-bedroom cottage that will be available in summer 2011. (www.pearsonspond.com)
- Holland America Line’s 14-day Explorer Tour from Seattle will add Icy Strait Point as a port of call for the first time since 2007, providing guests with an opportunity to discover Native Tlingit culture near Hoonah. The Amsterdam will sail Fridays roundtrip from Seattle on an extensive itinerary that features scenic cruising in the Tracy Arm Fjord and past the Hubbard Glacier with port calls at Ketchikan, Juneau, Icy Strait Point, Anchorage, Homer, Kodiak and Sitka. (www.hollandamerica.com)
- Alaska Mountain Guides is now offering heli-skiing trips out of Skagway, a historic town along the Inside Passage. From February to April, experts from the adventure guide service will host skiers with varying skill levels in the northernmost region of the Coast Range. (www.alaskamountainguides.com)
3. New facilities
- The Alaskans for Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge in the Mat-Su Valley plans to install a wildlife viewing tower and picnic pavilion at Reflections Lake in 2011. The refuge is a wonderful birding location and provides easy access to hiking, photography opportunities and more. (www.palmerhayflats.org)
- The new Athabascan ceremonial house at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage is on schedule for completion in early 2011. The new building will serve as a functional place for gatherings and meetings, and educate visitors about Athabascan history and culture. In addition, the building will be used as an exhibit and location for future language classes.
- A new Forest Service visitors center will open in Valdez in May 2011. Located next to the salmon spawning area, the center will provide information on the life cycle of salmon and visitors will be able to watch the under-water salmon cameras. Information regarding Forest Service lands will be available as well as a staff member to answer questions about hiking routes and scenic viewpoints of the area.
- Kodiak is preparing to reopen an area of the Kodiak Wildlife Refuge that has not been open to the public for 17 years, placing Kodiak Island visitors in the middle of one of the thickest concentrations of brown bears in the world. Beginning in late July, the O’Malley Bear Viewing Program will allow groups of eight or less to view bears on a 12-foot-by-20-foot viewing platform. Visitors will be required to stay a minimum of four nights in cabin accommodations in order to cut down on plane traffic to the area.
- Wedgewood Resort in Fairbanks has become even more birder friendly with the addition of a new observation deck and viewing/photography blind at Wander Lake, part of its recently completed Wedgewood Wildlife Sanctuary. Guests will now find Alaska bird identification books in each room and bird checklists at the sanctuary trailhead. The resort has also partnered with Friends of Creamer’s Field to be the host hotel for the Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival held each August.
- Ah, Rose Marie Downtown Bed and Breakfast in Fairbanks has expanded with an annex next door to its main building, adding five additional rooms to its current four rooms, all available for under $100 (plus tax).(www.akpub.com/akbbrv/ahrose.html)
- The Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum at Wedgewood Resort has expanded its collection to over 75 vintage vehicles. Visitors in 2011 will also find new exhibits on bicycle history and the historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, dozens of new costumes in the vintage fashion exhibit and new Alaska historic photographs. The museum has launched a completely revamped website that includes a photo gallery, media page, tour information and a list of vehicles. (www.fountainheadmuseum.com)
- In spring 2011, Sitka will have the infrastructure to accommodate large cruise ships at its brand new dock. Currently, small ships can tie up in downtown Sitka but larger vessels have to anchor up in deeper water and transport passengers to shore on boats. The length of the new dock will be around 1,000 feet and include a vehicle access ramp connected to the shore.
- Winter visitors to Juneau in 2011 will notice some upgrades to the city’s Eaglecrest Ski Area. In December, the resort opened a fourth chairlift, replacing the current surface beginner lift and allowing access to additional beginner terrain. Also, an additional mile of the lower Nordic trail is being hardened to allow a more consistent skiing experience. The combined loops now offer more than five miles of trail.