Alaska Native corporation pursues Denali-area airport to bring tourists directly from Lower 48

  • Clouds begin to cover Denali, seen from Stony Overlook, in Denali National Park and Preserve on Sept. 8, 2019. (NPS Photo/Emily Mesner)

An Alaska Native regional corporation is working with state transportation officials and the Denali Borough on a proposal for a new airport that would allow Lower 48 tourists to fly directly to the doorstep of Denali National Park and Preserve.

Doyon Ltd. says the “Denali Airport,” as it describes the concept in a 22-page booklet, could be built north of Healy on state land, allowing tourists to quickly reach the park after jetting in from, say, Seattle, San Francisco or Anchorage.

The project must overcome high costs, permitting requirements and other challenges. But if built, it could provide a new travel option for the park’s 600,000-plus annual visitors who want a close-up view of North America’s tallest mountain.

Those visitors now often spend a chunk of their day traveling overland to the park as part of a cruise package, especially from Anchorage, more than five hours away by bus and longer by train.

“Over the last few years as Doyon has been building our presence in tourism, people in the industry kept using the phrase ‘Move the mountain closer,’” said Aaron Schutt, Doyon’s chief executive, in an interview.

That’s what Doyon, the Fairbanks-based Native corporation for Interior Alaska, is trying to do, he said.

“One thing about cruise add-ons is you maybe have three days or five days, and if you’re spending a day on a bus, you just burned one of those days,” he said.

As Doyon sees it, a relatively small airport could be built at one of two preferred locations off the Parks Highway, according to the booklet. One is about 20 minutes from the park, near Healy. The other is about 45 minutes away, near the community of Clear.

But to accept 737 jets with close to 200 passengers, an airport with a runway more than a mile long could cost well over $50 million, according to estimates in the booklet.

Under the plan, the runway would be built by the state, using federal funding wherever possible, Schutt said. The proposed terminal, filled with cultural amenities and dining areas, could be built and owned by Doyon, Schutt said. It could cost $18 million.

Schutt said the project could boost Doyon’s own tourism enterprises associated with the park, such as a lodge, bus tours and a joint venture providing many park services.

But it would also enhance tourism statewide, he said, potentially freeing up visitors’ time for more Alaska travel.

“We are creating a bigger pie for hopefully all of us that creates more opportunities throughout the state,” Schutt said.

Obstacles include funding, federal approval

The idea is drawing some concern in Fairbanks that it may reduce the number of tourists who travel there before heading to Denali, said Scott McCrea, president of Explore Fairbanks.

But Doyon’s proposal is so fresh that Explore Fairbanks needs to learn more from the Native corporation, he said. The group has not taken a position on the idea, he said.

A bus ride from Fairbanks to the park can take more than two hours.

“We support infrastructure growth and bringing more visitors to Alaska and the Interior, but don’t want it to be a detriment to tourism in Fairbanks,” he said.

In recent months, the Denali Borough and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities have been meeting with Doyon to help advance the idea, Schutt said.

The local government and the state agency had already been looking at replacing the small Healy airport when Doyon came along, said Judy Chapman, planning chief for the transportation agency’s northern region.

“All three entities have been working on different iterations of planning for a similar facility,” she said in an email.

“All efforts came together due to mutual/overlapping interests and are being advanced at the same time,” she said.

The borough for many years has been pursuing the concept of a regional airport, to expand aviation options beyond the small airports in the area, said Clay Walker, the borough’s mayor. Regional airports can typically accept domestic flights.

“We are pretty underserved aviation-wise here,” Walker said.

The borough is excited to be working with Doyon and the state to find ways to bring a regional airport to the area, he said. It could support new jobs and improved emergency and cargo services, he said.

“There could be a range of economic benefits,” he said.

Doyon has done early engineering and architectural work for more than a year as it has looked for an appropriate site for a runway and terminal, Schutt said.

Plans show construction ending around 2028.

“It’s not just the funding, but getting the process approved by the Federal Aviation Administration will be a long and hard effort,” Schutt said. “We understand that going in.”

A terminal that’s also a tourism hub

With tourism expected to continue growing in Alaska, the proposed airport isn’t the only effort underway to attract visitors to the state. Projects include Huna Totem’s plans to build a cruise dock in Whittier, while the Alaska Railroad is taking steps to replace and expand an old cruise dock to handle new, large ships in Seward.

Nolan Klouda, head of the Center for Economic Development at the University of Alaska, said he sees the airport and a new travel option to the park as a possible benefit for tourism in Alaska.

“It probably has the potential to grow overall visitation more so than poaching from other destinations,” he said.

Some organizations that support tourism in Alaska, including the Alaska Travel Industry Association, said they needed to learn more about the details of the concept.

“Without knowing detailed plans, ATIA is always interested in learning more about new tourism product and development to enhance visitors’ experiences,” said Sarah Leonard, chief executive of Alaska Travel Industry Association.

Doyon sees the airport as part of a cultural corridor it’s developing in Alaska with Huna Totem, a Native village corporation from Southeast Alaska.

The corridor focuses on “underexplored visitor opportunities across the state,” according to the booklet. The airport could eventually support trips to, say, villages off the road system, Schutt said. He said it could also potentially remain open in winter, maybe serving tourists who want to see the northern lights or other attractions.

As for the terminal, it would be built as something of a destination unto itself, with views of mountains, interpretive trails and exhibits highlighting the area’s environment and culture, Schutt said.

“Airports are transportation hubs, not tourism hubs, generally,” Schutt said. “We’re trying to change that up a little with this one.”

Updated: 
09/14/2022 - 2:30pm