Alaska News

Could Obama's trip draw more tourists to Alaska?

Though President Obama's visit thrilled many Alaskans, some of the happiest people in the state might be those who work in the tourism industry.

The goal of the trip was to focus attention on climate change, a subject of particular concern in Alaska and the Arctic because the Far North is warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the world. But when the president of the United States visits your state, extols its beauty and wildlife and takes to the Internet to post photos and videos showcasing Alaska scenery and Native culture, there's a secondary effect -- a boost for tourism.

"We love all the attention," said Cindy Clock, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Seward, one of the president's destinations. "We just tell people, 'Now come here.'"

While his visits to Anchorage, Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park showcased easily accessible spots that already draw hundreds of thousands of tourists a year, the visits to Dillingham and Kotzebue put a spotlight on regions and cultures that don't usually get as much attention, said Sarah Leonard, president of the Alaska Travel Industry Association.

"It struck me as, I think, special that he and his team took the time to visit some of the more remote places that most of our visitors don't go," she said.

Tourism promoters are especially pleased that Obama talked repeatedly about coming back for a longer trip with his wife and daughters.

"You cannot see Alaska in three days. It's too big. It's too vast. It's too diverse. So I'm going to have to come back. I may not be president anymore, but hopefully I still get a pretty good reception," he said in a speech in Kotzebue. "And just in case, I'll bring Michelle, who I know will get a good reception."

On the Internet, there are signs that Obama's visit inspired some potential visitors.

The state's tourism website,, got some "nice increases" in hits, especially for pages on the places that Obama visited, said Kathy Dunn, tourism marketing manager for the Alaska Division of Economic Development.

There was a 125 percent increase in hits for Dillingham, a 113 percent increase for Kotzebue and a 64 percent increase for Kenai Fjords National Park in the Aug. 31 to Sept. 3 period compared to the same period last year, according to information gathered by the division, Dunn said.

"There is nothing else we can attribute these increases to other than the significant exposure Alaska received through the media coverage of President Obama's visit to Alaska," Dunn said in an email.

Google Trends data showed that searches also soared for such terms as Exit Glacier, a Kenai Fjords feature where Obama did a much-documented hike that he used to discuss glacial melt, and Kivalina, an eroding island village cited by Obama as an example of climate change damages, according to Google Trends data.

The biggest increase in hits, according to state tourism marketing data, was for a site that Obama actually didn't visit – a 301 percent increase for Denali National Park, according to the division's data.

That followed the announcement from Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell that the U.S. government would, after nearly a century of calling North America's tallest peak Mt. McKinley, change its federally recognized name to Denali. The traditional Athabascan name, often translated as "The High One," has been officially recognized by the state government as the mountain's proper name, a designation made in 1975. It is also the preferred name among Alaskans and among mountain climbers.

While the presidential team was in Alaska, locals took efforts to make their stay enjoyable.

Obama thanked Kotzebue residents for feeding staffers caribou meat and other local delicacies and inviting them on outings like berry picking trips. In both Kotzeubue and Dillingham, residents spruced up their towns and posted welcoming signs. In Seward, the residents who crowded the streets to greet the president included an Alaska SeaLife Center staffer who donned a puffin costume for the occasion.

Also in Seward, after some advance staffers climbed Mt. Marathon, Clock presented them with gifts – souvenirs of the famous July 4 footrace that is held on the mountain's steep slopes. But she drew the line at awarding them race finisher shirts. "My committee would kill me if I gave any finisher shirts to someone who didn't even finish the race," she said.

Not everyone followed every detail of the presidential visit.

Two visitors from Toronto who were eating breakfast at Snow City Cafe in Anchorage on Friday, Barb Goddard and Heather Ayers, confessed that they had been unaware until then that Obama had stopped in at the restaurant.

That changed when server Cindy Kim circulated the large crowd at the entrance to pass around samples of the type of sticky buns that Obama bought on Monday. Goddard and Ayers learned the backstory and they indulged. "Better than anything in Canada," Goddard proclaimed.

Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen was a reporter for Alaska Dispatch News.