Icy coverage does little to thaw state's icy image

Hal Bernton | The Seattle Times

For the past week the television networks tracking the rescue of California gray whales near Barrow have beamed the image of a harsh and unforgiving Alaska a land of bonenumbing cold, snow and iceclogged seas, where parkas, boots and face masks are mandatory gear.

The networks' whale footage, along with frontpage newspaper coverage, offers powerful reinforcement of a stereotype Alaska as Seward's Icebox that the state Division of Tourism has spent tens of millions of dollars trying to dispel.

State ads during the past decade have sought to portray Alaska as a land of deepgreen forests, sandy beaches and the midnight sun. This year's $7 million campaign features a coatless southern governor who escapes to Alaska, then is tracked down at a Kachemak Bay seafood feast by parkaclad aides.

"You guys are a little bit overdressed, " he chides his aides.

State Division of Tourism officials admit that the chill burst of Barrow publicity runs counter to their major marketing efforts, but hope Barrow and other arctic villages can transform the free exposure into increased tourism.

"There are two sides to this, " said Mary Pignalberi, a state Division of Tourism official. "It's generally true that people are seeing on national television sheets of ice, fur parkas and frigid temperatures in the middle of October. . . . But I think the whole story of the whales is very positive. There's a lot of caring. A lot of compassion."

Hubert Gellert, the division's director, said the agency is considering new promotions that will tout arctic Alaska and the village tours. "We'll try to do this through the people in Barrow themselves. . . . This is a real opportunity. . . . I can't say we're happy about the accident, because I don't like to see creatures suffer, but it's given us exposure that money can't buy."

Even without state help, Barrow tourism appears certain to increase.

"People are checking for dates in summer, and requesting information as for as tours and availability of hotel space, " said Ron Hewitt, manager of Barrow's Top of the World Hotel. "This has definitely peaked the interest of a lot of people. . . . A lot of people want to come up now, but we don't have space for them."

Top of the World is owned by Arctic Slope Regional Corp., an Eskimo corporation that also operates a local Barrow tour company. In years past, the tour has included an Eskimo blanket toss, craft demonstrations and visits to local historical sites. Next year, the tour plans to feature photos and possibly videos of the whale rescue, Hewitt said.

Visits to the site of the attempted rescue, however, won't be possible, Hewitt said. During the summer, that site is separated from the end of the road by five miles of boggy tundra.

Midnight Sun Tours, an Anchorage company that specializes in rural Alaska tours, also has noticed a surge in tour interest.

"October and November are our slowest months of the year, but we're probably 25 to 50 percent ahead (of last October) in the number of phone calls we're getting, " said Priscilla Wohl, general manager of Midnight Sun.

"We'll have people call just with general questions about Alaska, and in the middle people will stop and say, "By the way, how are the whales?' "

Other tour companies say they don't notice any increase in bookings but aren't afraid of the media's spotlight on icetrapped whales.

"We welcome the attention focused on whales, " said Floyd Fickle, administrative manager of Alaska Sightseeing Tours, a major Alaska tour group. "We have yacht tours that emphasize seeing whales."

But not everyone sees the Barrow publicity as a plus.

Bob Poe, director of the state Office of International Trade, said he has to work hard to convince potential foreign investors that much of Alaska is free of summer snow and easy to build on.

Now, Poe said, he'll have to work a little bit harder.

Anchorage Daily News