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Alaskan Travel Officials Expecting 140,000 Fewer Cruise Visitors This Year

By Rindi White, Anchorage Daily News, AlaskaMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Mar. 17, 2010--WASILLA -- The outlook for summer tourism is grim, with fewer cruise ships hitting Alaska ports this year. Travelers that do arrive are more likely to spend their money on T-shirts and Eskimo yo-yos than on helicopter tours or other high-end excursions, industry officials say.

Alaska is likely to see 140,000 fewer cruise visitors this year than in 2009, Ron Peck, president of Alaska Travel Industry Association, told Mat-Su tourism leaders last week.

The drop is due in part to the Lower 48 recession, but Peck said it's also linked to a $50 head tax for cruise ship travelers that Alaska voters imposed in 2006.

Paul Landis, chief operating officer of Cook Inlet Region Inc.'s Alaska tourism department, is part of a group called AlaskaACT, or the Alaska Alliance for Cruise Ship Travel, which is trying to ease the taxes, pollution laws and other rules the ships now face, in hope cruise lines will send more ships to Alaska. At a Mat-Su Convention & Visitors Bureau luncheon in Wasilla on Friday, Landis and Peck encouraged local tourism businesses to partner with AlaskaACT

But just a few Valley tourism businesses rely on cruise travelers, right?

Wrong, Peck said.

Tourism businesses all along the Railbelt in Southcentral are likely going to be harder hit by the drop in travelers than Southeast Alaska communities, he said. That's because most of the cruise ships that have been pulled from Alaska sailed to Whittier and Seward. Instead of about 400,000 cruise ship travelers a year to Southcentral, the head count is estimated to drop to 280,000 this year, he said. Normally half of these travelers take land tours on trains and buses in addition to the cruise, he said.

This is likely going to be a tough year for businesses that cater to those travelers, and in turn, it'll be tougher for other tourism businesses along the Railbelt, Peck said.

STRUGGLES ON THE RIVER

Steve Mahay, owner of Mahay's Jet Boat Adventures in Talkeetna, said he felt the pinch last year. He cut his employee roster from 50 to 24, a move that ripples through the small northern Mat-Su community -- fewer people paying rent, buying groceries and grabbing a beer or a burger in local restaurants and bars.

Mahay said because of his efforts to market fishing trips and local boat trips to Alaskans, he did better than other guide businesses. With the tourism outlook grim for a second year, he said he's hoping to hang on.

"In the case of Talkeetna, we've been a growth industry now for years and years ... that's history right now," he said. "I've been in business since 1975. I've got staying power, but a lot of people who came into the industry later are dropping out."

Between unstable king salmon runs -- last year's king fishing was poor, though the silver season went OK, he said -- and the cruise industry, Mahay said he's recently branched into tours that locals like and aren't dependent on good fishing.

His $155 Devil's Canyon run, a five-hour trip to an otherwise tough-to-reach canyon on the Susitna River, is one of those, he said. The boat stops at a recreated Dena'ina encampment and a trapper's cabin to give visitors a taste of the region's history.

"It's been a real big winner for us," he said.

He's hoping local marketing and favorites like the Devil's Canyon trip will help him keep the 24 employees working this year.

MORE INDEPENDENTS, FOR NOW

Dan McDonough, owner of Lifetime Adventures, a company that rents canoes and kayaks at local parks and also runs some state campgrounds, said he relies on business from independent travelers, people who drive to Alaska or fly in and rent a vehicle, along with local users.

Peck projected that the number of independent travelers might be up slightly this year, which is good news to businesses like McDonough's. But what happens in the cruise-ship industry has a big effect on his business, McDonough said.

Studies of travel patterns show cruise-ship travelers come back to the state later as independent travelers, McDonough said. Fewer cruisers mean fewer independent travelers later. But that's not all.

"The real big thing that the state, and people like me, will miss is that the cruise operators generally spend millions in advertising," he said.

Those ads get people talking about traveling, McDonough said, not just about taking a cruise.

"They definitely put the brand name 'Alaska' out there," he said.

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To see more of the Anchorage Daily News, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.adn.com.

Copyright (c) 2010, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska

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