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Alaska reality tours

Amanda Coyne

An image of a national park dangles from little screens on the back of cabs in Chicago. It's on signs on Michigan Avenue. Buses in Minneapolis are wrapped in scenes of natural beauty.

The signs and the wraps urge viewers to "Come to Montana" to experience the glaciers, the mountains.

Back at your hotel room, you might very well see a television commercial touting a "pure" Michigan. In Michigan, you can jump in a pure lake and tiptoe through the tulips. Tired of vicariously experiencing Michigan? Take a stroll with Betty White urging visitors to come to California and see the ingénues in bathing suits.

You might catch an Alaska commercial occasionally. But the folks at some Outside tourism offices say they haven't really seen many official Alaska tourism commercials lately, or at least anything memorable.

They loved the AKb4youdie campaign. Dave Lorenz Manager, Public, Media & Industry Relations of Michigan’s travel office, called it "brilliant." (That was a short campaign which ended about five years ago.)

Part of that has to do with funding. Michigan's official travel association gets roughly $25 million a year from the state just to spend on marketing and advertising. Hawaii gets between $70 million and $80 million.

The Alaska Travel Industry Association received $16 million in fiscal year 2011 to run all its operations. The tourism industry put in an additional $2.7 million. ATIA is requesting roughly $18 million in the 2012 budget that's still being hashed in Juneau.

Alaska may not have the budget, but what it does have -- to the envy of many other states -- is visibility, particularly now that both the Discovery and History channels have been dubbed by some as the "Alaska Channels." Indeed, it's nearly impossible to turn on the cable channels in the evenings and not be inundated with Alaska (which can be good or bad, depending on whether or not you're in Alaska, the time of year you're here, how much you yearn for escape, etc…)

No matter what its residents may think, this, by and large, is a good think for Alaska tourism. "You always benefit from others who shine the light on you," Michigan’s Lorenz said.

State travel directors tout 'Sarah Palin's Alaska' as a natural

Ron Peck, executive director for Alaska Travel Industry Association, mostly agrees.  However, he does say that all the shows don't necessarily promote the image that the travel industry wants to convey. He didn't mention any of these shows in particularly, but one does assume that "Alaska State Troopers," for example, doesn't always shine the best light on the state. And does Alaska really want to be known as the world's capital for animal stuffers?

"Sarah Palin's Alaska," on the other hand, was great marketing for Alaska. It showed everything that people want to see here: mountains, glaciers, sled dogs, fishing, hunting, and much more, said Peck. ATIA bought commercials that aired specifically during that show.

About 1.8 million tourists are expected to visit to Alaska this year. That's a slight increase from last year, mostly due to more independent travelers coming to the state. And although it's difficult to quantify what makes people come to Alaska, certainly the reality television shows have something to do with it. And certainly that's good for local businesses, particularly businesses in Alaska that are appealing to the reality-television show set.

To the extent that Alaska had thriving entrepreneurial spirit, it all but died after oil took over the economy, after Alaska rescinded its income tax, and state residents began to get a check every year for doing nothing but breathing Alaskan air. In fact, building local business is somewhat institutionally discouraged here. Because Alaska doesn't have a broad-based tax, every job created that brings someone from out of state costs the state roughly $1200, according to University of Alaska economist Scott Goldsmith.

But the spirit hasn't been completely stamped out. At least three businesses in Alaska have cropped up to provide Alaska tourism experiences dove-tailing with reality-show favorites "The Deadliest Catch," "Ice Road Truckers," and of course, "Sarah Palin’s Alaska." (Know of more? Give us a shout).

You a "Deadliest Catch" fan? Want to know what it's really like on a boat? Fly or step off a cruise ship in Ketchikan and onto the Aleutian Ballad, a ship that got some play during the second season of the popular Dutch Harbor-based reality show. Owned by husband and wife team Danene and David Lethin, at least one on the crew is a "Deadliest Catch" alum. Another is featured on the current season.

On the boat, you'll tool around the calm waters of a bay, learn about Alaska's fisheries, gear, vessels. You'll watch fisherman bait and hoist pots full of fish and crab, and then you'll sit around with the crew and talk about it. The tour has been recommended on Trip Advisor. The comments on the site are nearly all raves. In fact, many write that the tour was their best experience during their whole time in Alaska.

Then there's the Ice Road Truckers Tour, available here in Anchorage. It doesn't sound like the most exciting tour, but fans of the show really love it. They go nuts for it. What's involved? A tour of Carlile Transportation System headquarters in Ship Creek -- the outfit that supplies the trucks for the show -- as well as a simulated ride through the frozen roads of the Interior and a tour of the Anchorage Port.  

"It might sound weird to some people," said Candice McDonald, the daughter of the owner of Carlile (who runs the tours), "but there are major fans out there." People really like to get their photos taken behind the wheel of one of the ice road trucks, she said. It's so popular, in fact, that they're thinking of expanding the tour to include a drive from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay. (That option is already available for about $800, but you have to get yourself to Fairbanks and back from Prudhoe.)

"I have spoken to people who would never have considered coming to Alaska if not for that show," McDonald said.

And finally, of course, what's a tour of Alaska these days if Sarah Palin somehow isn't involved? Barbara and Gary Adams began the tour to show off Wasilla and Palmer, but soon realized that including Palin would be golden. The tour, which involves a train ride to Palmer, a sled dog ride, a walk through the reindeer and musk ox farms, a nice lunch at Colony Kitchen (a great place to eat, by the way), and a tour of the Alaska Native Village of Eklutna.

While touring the Valley, the couple takes visitors past Sarah Palin's high school, Wasilla High, Wasilla City Hall, and parks across Lake Lucille to get a view of her house.

"We keep a respectable distance," Barbara said.

Some people are more excited about this part of the tour than others, but so far no one has turned it down. Barbara has had people from all over the world take her tour, and she said, "the response has been amazing." Recently she toured the Lower 48 as well as the Bahamas in part to publicize Alaska Life and Glacier Tours.

Barbara says she was particularly surprised at how many Bahaman women were smitten by Sarah. One person actually wanted to hug her because she had met Sarah.

How does Sarah Palin feel about being featured in one of Alaska's tours? Barbara can't say for sure, but her nieces are friends with one of Palin's sisters, and thinks that she wouldn't mind. The Adamses have already begun booking for the upcoming season.

She's pretty sure that she'll be busy.

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com