Alaska Interior feels pinch of reduced road, ferry tourism

Associated PressMarch 26, 2012 

RVs on the Seward Highway along Turnagain Arm.


FAIRBANKS -- A tourism survey finds that RVs with out-of-state plates are becoming less common on Alaska's roads and highways.

The survey commissioned by the Alaska Department of Commerce says of an estimated 1.56 million out-of-state visitors in 2011, only 69,300 were highway and ferry visitors. That is a dip of 18 percent since 2006. Overall, the money they spent fell from $111 million to $71 million between 2006 and 2011, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

The survey, which is done every five years, shows that border crossings at the Top of the World Highway, the Alaska Highway and the Haines Highway slipped a combined 26 percent from 2006 to 2011.

Heather Haugland, project manager of the survey conducted by the McDowell Group, said the drop in road traffic disproportionately affects communities in the Interior, which rely more on highway visitors.

"Certainly, Fairbanks has been a victim of that (shift)," Haugland said.

Rising gas prices are part of the reason for the dip in road travelers, tourism officials say, but time also appears to be an issue.

The study found that even among retirees, fewer people have a month to spend on a leisurely drive to Alaska and back.

"Americans have a time deficit, even retirees," said Deb Hickok, executive director of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The reality is, the consumer is changing."

Since the number of visitors peaked in 2006, the industry has seen major changes. The global recession saw Alaska visitor numbers plummet in 2009, and those numbers have only gradually recovered.

Since visitors to Alaska peaked at about 1.7 million in both 2007 and 2008, they slipped to about 1.56 million in 2011. Those declines have stopped for the first time since the recession, however, with a 1.6 percent increase last summer from 2010.

Scott Reisland, the owner of Denali Grizzly Bear Resort, said he's seen the changes firsthand.

RV traffic has plummeted so much in the past decade that he closed a 98-space park near Denali National Park at the end of last summer. Only a second RV park he owns, with just 24 spaces, will reopen.

"It's a long-haul destination, and people are staying closer to home," he said.

Hickok said she's eager to see what an upcoming report on winter tourism reveals, saying there are indications that Alaska is making big gains as a winter destination.

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