In the dead of winter, the air outside swings past zero on the Fahrenheit scale around the Anchorage area. Farther north around Fairbanks, it gets even colder. But none of this dissuades tourists who see this as a time to take in some of the attractions that have built Alaska's tourism reputation.
Deb Hickok, president of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Fairbanks remains a big draw to visitors in the winter despite subarctic temperatures. She said the big attraction there is the aurora borealis, while other Alaska-style activities like dog mushing and ice fishing also draw tourists into the cold.
Such attractions have been packing the customers into the Chena Hot Springs Resort near Fairbanks for years. The resort's marketing director, Denise Ferree, said the top draw is the hot springs themselves. Of course, aurora borealis viewing is also at the top of the list, followed by the Aurora Ice Museum, dog sled rides, flying, snow- machine tours and cross-country skiing.
Free geothermal renewable energy tours are also bringing in a lot of interested groups, including students.
The northern lights in Alaska remain a unique business boost for much of the state. Hickok said large numbers of Japanese tourists are coming in on charter flights to see the northern lights.
"The proprietor of the resort, Bernie Karl, always says about viewing the aurora, 'You can't see them if you are not here,' " Ferree said.
Alaska's terrain also keeps visitors coming to the rest of the state. For example, skiing, snowshoeing, dog sledding and snowmachine tours, not to mention the Spring Carnival in April and the Roundhouse Museum, have helped build Alyeska Resort into a Girdwood staple.
Anchorage also holds popular tourist attractions in the winter, including the Iditarod, Tour of Anchorage and Fur Rendezvous.
Many resorts are gearing up for an anticipated busy winter. Their personnel contend that customers keep coming in during these months. A majority of these customers are domestic but the resorts are seeing more and more visitors from overseas.
Ferree said a lot of visitors from Japan, Taiwan, Korea and China come between December and March to see the aurora borealis. The resort is also seeing increased numbers of visitors from Australia and Germany. Domestically, Chena's largest visitor groups are from California, Arizona, Florida and Texas.
International tourism has grown so much that the resort has a designated vice president of Japanese marketing who partners with Japanese wholesalers and visits the country twice a year to set up groups.
"We are fortunate to have our Asian visitors sustain us during our busy season, which is winter from mid-December to the first part of April," Ferree said. "We are an anomaly for the state of Alaska in that summer is our 'slow' season from May to mid-August and winter is our busiest season."
Alyeska Resort spokeswoman Sandy Choi said they're getting strong visitation from both the east and west American coasts as well as from Europe. She said there are definitely more domestic visitors but guests from ski countries like the United Kingdom and Germany are up. She said more people are coming from Switzerland and France in recent years too.
"They come to us because of the skiing," she said.
Girdwood has a new addition this ski season: a season-long itinerary of skiing and snowboarding professionals, courtesy of the adventure company EpicQuest, which operates out of Alyeska Resort. Customers will be accompanied by reigning free-skiing world champion Jess McMillan one week or ski film regular Ian McIntosh another.
Nine different experts from around the world plus Chugach powder guides will lead guests through their week-long heli-skiing expeditions.
Famed ski photographer Scott Markewitz will also return to EpicQuest for a week this year to teach skiers how to capture their best moments.
EpicQuest has brought in renowned professionals before but this will be the first time they will be on board continuously throughout the season from February through April.
"It's something we always wanted to do," said Chris Owens, EpicQuest co-founder and vice president of marketing and brand development. He said it can take quite a bit of time to build a roster of professionals.
"You're not going to find another program like this in heli-skiing," Owens said.
The ski business itself for the area is expected to increase. Choi said business has been increasing and the resort sees a little more than 200,000 skier visits in the winter.
Owens said the ski business went down several years ago and he speculated that the economy discouraged such trips. He said it took a while for people to return but business has been slowly increasing.
At the same time that tourists explore what a winter in the last frontier is about, many Alaskans decide it's the season to take a trip out of the cold and the dark. Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Marianne Lindsey said California and Mexico are popular winter destinations for Alaskans. Still, Hawaii -- particularly Honolulu -- is leading the pack here.
During the first quarter of 2011, Alaska Air had roughly 160 passengers flying daily between Alaska and Hawaii.
Alaska Airlines started flying between Alaska and Hawaii on Dec. 9, 2007. Now the airline has seven weekly nonstop round-trip flights between Anchorage and Honolulu and three weekly nonstop round-trip flights between Anchorage and Maui.
Alaska Air also has flights to Honolulu, Maui, the Big Island and Kauai via connections in Seattle.
Alaska Airlines acquired the customer base for Anchorage-based Hawaiian Vacations in 2008. After that, it started offering its own packages via Alaska Airlines Vacations. Other carrier options between Alaska and Hawaii are available.
Hawaii had 59,700 visitors from Alaska between January and November 2011, a 17 percent increase over the same period in 2010, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
Some Alaska residents do choose to see more of their home state while on vacation. But this is not what such resorts bank on.
"Although we do have a good in-state business, and provide an Alaska resident rate year-round, our larger groups and visitors are from outside the state, either domestically or internationally," Ferree said.
By JONATHAN GRASS
Alaska Journal of Commerce