On a drizzly early-summer morning, a minibus barreled down the Seward Highway with Alaska’s tourism future inside.
Skylar Travel tour guide Bruce Lin — he chose the Americanized version of his name because he likes kung-fu hero Bruce Lee — narrated over a loudspeaker about the history and wildlife of the area, punctuating rapid-fire Mandarin Chinese with occasional English words like “hooligan” or “Captain Cook.”
Thirteen visitors from China — a professor, a student and a water-quality expert among them — craned their necks to glimpse the velvety green mountains and silty, churning waters of Turnagain Arm.
China, with its rapidly expanding middle class, is the up-and-coming colossus of international tourism.
Despite the number of travelers from China decreasing in 2018 — for the first time since 2003 — nearly 3 million tourists from China visited the U.S. last year.
Chinese tourists spent a collective $36.4 billion in the United States last year, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office, making them the biggest spenders of all international tourists.
But until recently, Alaska received relatively few visitors from China.
That’s all changing — and fast.
Driven by social media and a growing interest in winter tourism connected with the northern lights, China to Alaska tourism has exploded in recent years.
A decade ago the state was barely known as a destination, said Jin Chen, the Beijing-raised chief operating officer for Alaska Skylar Travel, an Anchorage tour company that caters to Mandarin-speaking visitors.
When she moved to Fairbanks to attend college, people at home would often confuse her new state of Alaska for Las Vegas. The two words sound similar in Chinese, she said.
“Just a short 10 years ago Alaska didn’t really have its own identity yet in China,” said Chen. “Now when you say you’ve traveled to Alaska people know exactly where that is.”
Alaska Skylar Travel was founded five years ago. It has grown from five workers more than 50 employees and contractors with offices in Beijing and on Northern Lights Boulevard in Anchorage.
A boom in visitors from China could have a big and positive impact on the state’s tourism industry, especially in expanding winter tourism, said Sarah Leonard, the executive director of the Alaska Travel Industry Association.
“China is definitely the emerging market right now,” said Leonard.
The state’s visitor statistics program estimated about 5,000 visitors from China in 2016, up from 2,000 in 2011.
Similar research hasn’t been repeated since then. Officials and people in the industry put the number at 10,000 or above in 2018.
The state is taking notice: The Alaska Travel Industry Association recently signed a deal to market the state as a destination on popular Chinese social media sites like WeChat and Weibo. The ads showcase glaciers, Katmai National Park and a glass-domed Alaska Railroad train and the Dalton Highway.
“Self-driving or taking tour bus through the Dalton Highway is one of the classics of exploring Alaska,” the translated text of a Weibo ad says. “However it is recommended to take local chartered bus if you don’t acquire superb driving skills and rich travel experience.”
In 2018, Explore Fairbanks launched a similar media campaign in China.
And in March, Anchorage hosted Active America China, a major conference that focuses on marketing American destinations to Chinese travel professionals.
Understanding the desires of Chinese tourists will be key to future growth, said Leonard.
So who are some of the Chinese visitors coming to Alaska? And what do they think of it here? A tiny sample of the answer is on the minibus headed to Whittier.
Photo-ops and Weibo sensations
The group disembarked from the bus for the first stop on the tour, a brief photo op at Portage Lake, where a receding glacier could be seen in the distance.
The day’s tour participants are representative of Alaska Skylar Travel’s summer customers, according to Chen: Mostly older, highly educated and very well traveled.
The minibus sped through the Whittier tunnel, which Lin described as a feat of engineering.
Alaska is still far from the top pick for travelers from China. Top American destinations include big cities, like New York, where nearly a third of Chinese travelers to the U.S. visit, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
On the other side of the Whittier tunnel, a monolith of a cruise ship came into view.
Chen says Alaska is a “secondary destination,” meaning that it is almost never the first or only place her customers intend to travel on a trip to the United States. Many of the passengers on the tour were combining their time in Alaska with visits to relatives in other U.S. cities, or tours of destinations such as Seattle, Vancouver B.C. or San Francisco.
Most were couples, and already seasoned travelers: Minghui Dong, a nurse and tour guide from Beijing, said she had visited 43 countries.
Only a few solo travelers joined the tour, like Jing Wang.
Wang, from Daqing in the Northeast of China, said she had been all over the United States. Alaska and Hawaii were the last states to complete her travels.
What did she hope to see in Alaska? “Glaciers, glaciers, glaciers,” she said in English.
In Whittier, the bus made a stop at Begich Tower Condominium, where virtually all of the town’s 220 residents live, surrounded by junked boats and a makeshift reindeer pen. Waterfalls tumbled down green mountain sides behind the building.
The Begich Towers enjoyed a brief moment of celebrity in China recently when a story about the building trended on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, Lin said.
More than any other single factor, Alaska has been shared with the Chinese public through social media, according to Lin. Images of glaciers and mountains, and especially of the aurora borealis, offer a sense of iconic destinations or experiences, something industry researchers have found Chinese tourists seek in other markets, like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
“People see those beautiful pictures," said Lin. "That makes them want to come here.”
Another event that upped the profile of Alaska: Chinese president Xi Jinping 2017 visit to Alaska, in which he turned a re-fueling stop into a quick sightseeing expedition, including a stop at Beluga Point on the Turnagain Arm and an elegant seafood dinner at the Captain Cook Hotel’s Crow’s Nest restaurant.
On the glacier cruise, the visitors and 200 other tourists watched tidewater glaciers calve great chunks of translucent blue ice into the water.
“In another state, you might take a tour just to see this waterfall!” said the U.S. Forest Service ranger aboard the ship.
Fat seals wiggled on small icebergs known as “bergy bits." Toward the end of the cruise, when the ship pulled up at the towering face of Coxe Glacier, the crew pulled out signs for the tourists to pose with, for ready-made holiday card shots. Some said “Happy Holidays!” and “Merry Christmas!” One bears a message about New Year greetings in Chinese.
More attractions are catering to, or at least recognizing, the growth in the Chinese tourist market in Alaska.
Denali National Park and Preserve has for two winter seasons hired a Mandarin-speaking Student Conservation Association intern to help interpret everything from dogsled demonstrations to wildlife talks for groups of visitors who come on bus or train package tours from Fairbanks, said park education employee Elizabeth Beavers.
“We know we’ve had tremendous growth in winter visitation since 2012," Beavers said. “Really a steady increase in Mandarin-speaking visitation.”
Much of Alaska Skylar Travel’s growth is in the winter aurora tourism market, said Chen. It appeals on several levels: It’s less expensive to travel in Alaska during the wintertime. Winter visitors from China skew much younger, with an average age of 28 versus 50 or older for summer visitors, according to Chen. Many are students studying in the United States.
Couples — especially young couples — travel to Alaska for the aurora because they see it as a way to bless their relationship, said Lin, the tour guide.
The aurora is “like a diamond ring,” he said. “It’s about love.”
Plus, there’s no guarantee visitors will see the aurora, which makes it feel a little more special, Lin said.
Back in the minibus, the group heads north toward Anchorage.
Most travelers on tours through Alaska Skylar Travel spend a few days in Anchorage on either end of outings to Seward, Whittier, Talkeetna and Denali, Chen said.
Chinese visitors consistently rank shopping among their priorities in Alaska -- and everywhere -- according to the U.S. Travel Association data. Travelers typically want to spend at least a half-day shopping in Anchorage, Chen said.
But Anchorage lacks the high-end designer boutiques and outlet malls popular in places like Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Here, well-heeled travelers might shop for what Anchorage does have to offer in the shopping department, Chen said: High-end outdoors gear.
That might include Canada Goose down jackets or gear from REI. Trips to the Apple Store in the Fifth Avenue Mall are also popular, Chen said. Alaska’s lack of sales tax makes it a bargain to buy big-ticket electronics and other items.
Lin pointed out Dall sheep clinging to the cliffs above the Seward Highway.
Qin Li, a water quality expert from the coastal city of Dalian, says he has some suggestions for Alaska: One, that non-stop flights between Northwest China and Alaska be established. (Year-round direct flights between Harbin, northeast of Beijing, and Anchorage were supposed to begin this summer, but failed to materialize.)
Two, Alaska glacier water should be marketed and sold in China.
“We import Evian,” he said through an interpreter. “This glacier water is very natural.”
Minghui Dong too was reflecting on her time in Alaska. She, like several others, said she was dazzled by the pristine waters of Prince William Sound and the open spaces of the Chugach National Forest.
“There’s a lot of things to learn about environmental protection,” said Dong through an interpreter.
Alaska, she said, “left a beautiful impression on her.”