Low gas prices boosted Alaska tourism in ‘15

Winter, spring, summer and fall, lots of people are coming to Alaska.

Visitor numbers were steady or increased nearly everywhere across the state during the latest summer tourism season.

In Anchorage, municipal hotel, or bed, tax revenue is on pace to set a fourth consecutive record, which would also be a seventh straight year of bed tax growth.

“Definitely for leisure travel, I feel that we’ll be on target with banner hotel revenues,” Visit Anchorage CEO Julie Saupe said.

Bed tax revenue was up nearly 5 percent year-over-year through the first half of 2015. Anchorage pulled in more than $25.2 million last year from its 12 percent tax on room rental transactions.

Saupe said the city’s fall meeting season would be strong this year, but it remains to be seen if it will top 2014, which had a record number of convention-goers in October.

While low oil prices strain much of Alaska’s economy and state budgets, cheaper prices at the pump in the Lower 48 correlate to more visitors in the Last Frontier.

More discretionary income — money not spent on gas — provides an opportunity for Americans to scratch the travel itch, Saupe said. There is also a feeling that competitive airfares and less expensive travel once in Alaska encourages visitors as well.

Indicators from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport support Saupe’s premise, too. Enplanements at the Anchorage airport were up each month this year versus 2014; they were up an average of nearly 8 percent during the summer months.

Southcentral cruise traffic, primarily to the ports of Seward, Whittier and Anchorage, was also up this year. It is expected to hold steady in 2016.

Anchorage will see nine ports of call from cruise ships again next year, Saupe said, but the ship will be slightly larger than the 1,200-berth Holland America Line Statendam that visited Anchorage this year.

A pair of tourism industry meetings next year could bode well for the hospitality industry beyond the meeting attendees, according to Saupe.

The Go West Summit, a gathering of international tour operators that sell vacations in the Western United States, will convene next February in Anchorage. In September, it will be the Adventure Travel World Summit put on by the Adventure Travel Trade Association.

“For future business these folks will get a chance to take a close look at what Alaska has to offer in the adventure travel world and we hope develop itineraries and send future clients our way,” Saupe said. “It’s a great chance to show off our product to some big sellers of adventure travel.”

The Anchorage Economic Development Corp. estimates about 10 percent of jobs in the city are tied to the tourism industry, meaning a strong travel business can help mitigate potential downturns in other areas of Anchorage’s economy. The industry relies on the Outside domestic and international travel, which are both on a growth curve, Saupe said.

Fairbanks

Bed tax revenue collected by the City of Fairbanks was up more than 4 percent through July year-over-year, while passenger traffic at the Fairbanks International Airport was steady through the summer compared to 2014.

“We had a solid summer,” Explore Fairbanks CEO Deb Hickok said.

Preliminary passenger figures from the Alaska Railroad Corp. were steady as well; 451,000 people road the rails the past two summers.

The Alaska Railroad offers service between the Southcentral cruise ports and Fairbanks.

Tourism growth in Fairbanks has come during the aurora season — late August through April — lately, and Hickok said this season is shaping up to be a “transition year” for historical markets.

China Air announced in September it plans to fly three new charter flights direct from Taiwan to Fairbanks in December full of travelers hoping to see Alaska’s northern lights.

“The aurora is really the big thing in Fairbanks,” Hickok said.

At the same time, Japan Airlines is flying only two aurora charters this year, which Hickok said is largely a result of restructuring as the airline comes out of bankruptcy.

“They acknowledge there is still market demand,” for aurora flights out of Japan, she said.

The Alaska Railroad has also added midweek trains between Anchorage and Fairbanks in February and March to its schedule.

Hickok said she is happy to see the railroad’s commitment to winter tourism beyond its normal winter weekend routes.

Juneau

Numbers of both cruise and independent travelers increased in Juneau this summer, too.

Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Liz Perry said more than 976,000 people visited the capital city via cruise ship this year, an increase of about 2 percent. That growth is expected to continue into next year with about 1 million cruise passengers expected in 2016.

“The reduction in gas prices across the U.S. has allowed for some competitive airfares,” Perry said. “Even the little difference we’ve seen here in Alaska allows people to consider bringing cars in on the ferry and so forth to move around Southeast.”

Another nearly 100,000 people booked hotel rooms in Juneau over the summer and campground occupancy was up as well, she noted.

“We are seeing an increasing number of people who are calling here and seeking information about Juneau who have previously visited on a cruise and want to come into town and spend more time and really enjoy the place and explore it on a completely different level,” Perry said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
11/24/2016 - 3:14pm