Goldbelt Inc. keeping wary eye on tourism

PHOTO/Courtesy Alaska Industrial and Economic Development Authority
Like its big sister, Sealaska Corp., Goldbelt Inc., Juneau’s urban Native village corporation, has seen some tough times. But it expects to do better this year.

Goldbelt lost $3.4 million in 2000 and $4.4 million in 2001. This year is looking better but no projections are being made because of the unpredictability of the 2002 tourism season, according to David Goade, Goldbelt executive vice president.

Goldbelt has invested heavily in tourism, but suffered in the sector last year. For years Goldbelt was also in logging, but has now completed harvesting of its lands, investing the earnings mainly in tourism, which despite its uncertainties is seen as a growth industry, Goade said.

Goldbelt owns 32,000 acres of land in Southeast. Much of the land was owned for its timber value, which has now been realized, but the corporation has other large land holdings near Juneau which are prime for residential development.

The capital city suffers from available land for growth. A long-term plan for development of Goldbelt land on west Douglas Island, near the city, offers Juneau room to grow, Goade said.

Meanwhile, Goldbelt is a major player in the Southeast Alaska tourism business. A number of tourism-related companies operating in Southeast Alaska, including the Mount Roberts Tram, the 105-room Goldbelt Hotel, one of the capital city’s premier hotels, and a sightseeing vessel equipped for day cruises, are Goldbelt owned and operated, Goade said.

While the 2002 tourist season is looking better than it did late last fall after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, key segments of the industry, such as independent travelers, are still very unpredictable, Goade said.

The tram is now Juneau’s most visible landmark. From late spring through early fall, it carries tourists from downtown Juneau to the 1,800 foot level on Mount Roberts, one of the peaks towering over the capital city.

Goldbelt was a partner in construction of the tram and is now its full owner. Ridership has steadily increased, exceeding 200,000 last year, Goade said.

Goldbelt expects to do better than that this year with an expected heavy influx of cruise tour passengers to Juneau this summer.

Cruise operators have added capacity and heavily marketed Alaska to fill the big cruise ships, and Goade thinks that riding the tram for $21 for sightseeing or hiking on the mountain is a bargain for a shore excursion.

The corporation has also built a restaurant, a high-end gift shop and a theatre at the upper terminal of the tram. It has worked with the U.S. Forest Service to improve hiking trails and facilities for sightseeing on the upper mountain, an effort which included protecting areas of delicate vegetation, Goade said.

Still, ridership on the tram is heavily dependent on the weather, which is unpredictable in Southeast, he said.

The tram pulls its business from the big cruise ships, but the Goldbelt Hotel and day-cruise vessel operation are more dependent on independent travelers, which are still a question mark for the summer season, Goade said.

Independent tourists tend to spend more money in Alaska than package tourists, and the smaller cruise lines, hotels and shore-excursion companies are more dependent on independent travelers.

Business was down somewhat last year for tour-related firms, including Goldbelt’s, that cater to independents, mainly because of softness in the U.S. economy.

Some of the smaller day-cruise operators in Southeast Alaska didn’t make it and have gone out of business, but Goldbelt was been able to sustain its cruise business through the tougher times.

The company operates a 78-foot catamaran sightseeing vessel that offers tours of Glacier Bay and Tracy Passage, departing from downtown Juneau.

As for the hotel, Goldbelt Hotel in downtown Juneau is holding its own, doing as well as any of the other major hotels in the capital, Goade said. Advance reservations are somewhat down for the upcoming summer season, but the tourist season is so unpredictable that this is not considered a reliable indicator, he said.

Independent travelers are heavily influenced by swings in the economy and the economy is doing better this spring, which may influence more people to decide to take a vacation to Alaska, Goade said.

Another strategic initiative by Goldbelt is a plan to develop lands it owns on the south side of Berner’s Bay as a residential community for the planned Kensington gold mine, which is across the bay on the north side.

The 1,300-acre land tract would be developed in phases, but if the Kensington Mine goes ahead, the first part would be a residential community where workers at the mine could live and commute to their jobs by a ferry.

The corporation has also been working with Coeur Alaska Inc., developer of the mine, to build a small vessel dock at Cascade Point, a few miles from the end of the existing Glacier Highway.

The dock would serve vessels traveling to the mine, and could eventually be a terminal for state ferry vessels operating from Juneau to Haines and Skagway on northern Lynn Canal, Goade said.

Operating from Cascade Point would cut hours off the ferry transit times from Auke Bay, the present terminal, to Haines and Skagway, Goade said.

Ferry passenger and vessel traffic to Haines and Skagway are heavy during summer because those communities are tourist destinations as well as connecting points for highways to Yukon Territory and Interior Alaska.

05/26/2002 - 8:00pm