Anchorage, Fairbanks recognized as top winter destinations
Alaska has long been an iconic tourist destination in summer. Now, the state’s largest cities are garnering attention for their winter attractions.
Anchorage was ranked No. 1 on a list of “America’s Hottest Cold Cities” by Livability, an online travel magazine. According to its mission, Livability’s goal is to find “the good stuff in small to medium-sized communities all across America.”
The Fairbanks area recently received similar honors from two travel information outlets.
National Geographic magazine listed the Chena River State Recreation Area as a top 10 winter trip for 2013. The nearly 400 square-mile area of primarily wilderness begins about 30 miles east of Fairbanks near the end of Chena Hot Springs Road.
Travel guide website Lonely Planet named Fairbanks its No. 2 domestic destination for 2013.
“A lot of it is about the aurora, that’s what really captured their attention,” said Deb Hickok, president and CEO of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Lonely Planet noted that this year ends an, “11-year (aurora) cycle, when sunspots are particularly feisty, making for a big show in the Fairbanks sky.”
Hickok said preliminary numbers she’s seen from the State of Alaska estimate about 50,000 people traveled to the Interior last winter with roughly 17,000 of those being vacationers. That marks a 6 percent increase from the last survey done in the winter of 2006-07 she said.
“I personally think that’s a little low, because we know on the Japan Airlines charters we got 7,800 (visitors) alone,” Hickok said.
In addition to viewing the northern lights she said visitors head to Fairbanks for the Chena Hot Springs, dog mushing and the World Ice Art Championships beginning in late February and running through March. The ice sculpting competition features about 100 exhibits produced by artists from around the world every year.
Fairbanks winter temperatures can be a deterrent to some prospective travelers, Hickok said, but for those who embrace the weather she calls it a “notch in their travel belt.”
She said guided tours and mushing outfitters often provide gear for those who might not otherwise be prepared for a sub-Arctic winter excursion.
“We advise people to dress in layers. If you’re out at the ice park and it’s minus-30 you go around for a half-hour, an hour, and then you go inside and have a cup of hot chocolate and you go back out again,” Hickok said. “It’s just getting over that perceived notion of what the cold is like.”
Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau spokesman Jack Bonney said late winter offers visitors a number of unique winter attractions. The Fur Rendezvous Festival begins in mid-February and bills itself as a “10-day celebration of life in Alaska.” The festival was named as a top winter event by National Geographic Traveler in January 2012.
Shortly after the Iditarod begins in Anchorage and the Tour of Anchorage cross-country ski marathon happens in early March.
“We kind of package those as a tour when we talk about winter visitation,” Bonney said. “They’re right next to each other in that same couple of weeks, so it makes a really good time to visit Anchorage.”
Bonney pointed to traditional summer activities such as hiking and sightseeing flights as options for winter activities when conditions allow.
An Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development economic impact study of the state’s tourism industry reported that in the fall and winter of 2008-09 visitors spent $197 million in Alaska. $128 million was spent in Southcentral and nearly $37 million was shelled out in the Interior. That compares with $1.3 billion spent by visitors to Alaska in the summer of 2009.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].