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Tourism expected to hold the line in 2014

Posted: April 12, 2014 - 7:42pm

It’s almost time for the rush of family and friends from the Lower 48, and Alaska’s tourism industry leaders are expecting a good, but not great, 2014 visitor season.

John Binkley, president of Cruise Lines International Association Alaska, formerly the Alaska Cruise Association, said he is expecting 972,000 cruise visitors to the state this year, a slight decrease from the 999,600 cruisers to Alaska in 2013.

While the final 2013 tally did not quite reach the 1 million cruisers, it was the first year since 2009 that the benchmark was even approached after the global recession and a since-repealed cruise passenger state tax increase hit the industry hard. Less than 900,000 passengers toured Alaska by cruise ship in 2010 and 2011.

Binkley said this year’s projection is based on less available cruise openings caused by some of the lines adjusting their schedules from last year because of Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

“When (the cruise companies) were making their decisions for 2014 we still had the cloud of ECA, the Emission Control Area, hanging over us that the EPA had mandated with the expensive fuel, so that affected the deployment decisions as to where they were moving their ships,” Binkley said.

Passed in 2010, Emission Control Area standards required ships operating within 200 miles of U.S. or Canadian coasts to burn fuel containing less than 0.1 percent sulfur by 2015.

In September, Carnival Corp., the world’s largest cruise company announced it had reached an agreement with the EPA to add less expensive “sulfur scrubbers” to the ships’ exhaust systems to comply with the regulation as opposed to burning fuel that Binkley has said would’ve added an expense to cruise operators of $150 per passenger.

He said several of the other major cruise lines operating in Alaska have since reached similar compromises with the EPA.

“At least they allow for the technology solution rather than mandating the expensive fuel,” he said.

After Anchorage saw no cruise ships in 2013, Holland America’s Amsterdam will call on the city four times from May to August. The Amsterdam will also stop in Homer on its way to Anchorage.

Despite having no ships in port last year, Binkley said the state’s largest city still felt the economic impact of Whittier and Seward being “turn-ports” for cruise ships. Being the airport and railroad hub for Southcentral draws cruisers beginning or ending their ocean voyages in the smaller communities to Anchorage often for several days as opposed to those visiting it just for a day as a “port of call,” he said.

Visit Anchorage President and CEO Julie Saupe said her organization considers the other region ports a part of Anchorage.

“If you’re a hotel in Anchorage you like Seward and Whittier as a stop more so than Anchorage as a port of call,” Saupe said. “Now if you’re a museum or a lunch spot downtown you really appreciate the Amsterdam coming right in.”

She said she is optimistic about the summer of 2014 because of increased airline exposure to Alaska and how the cruise prices are holding up.

“Things seem to be selling without extra effort, without having to throw in additional values or 10 percent off and that’s something we always watch for,” she said. “We know the cruise lines work hard to fill those ships; the question is how hard to they have to work to fill those ships?”

Icelandair is continuing seasonal service to Anchorage from Reykjavik that started in 2013 and Yakutia Airlines is doing the same with flights from Eastern Russia. Delta has also increased its flights from the West Coast to Anchorage this year.

Fairbanks is coming off a “robust” winter tourism season, Explore Fairbanks President and CEO Deb Hickok said, and she hopes that will carry to summer.

The winter Aurora viewing season in Fairbanks is popular with Japanese and Korean tourists as well as domestic travelers.

Bed tax revenue in the City of Fairbanks was up 19 percent in January over 2013 and Hickok said she is anticipating strong numbers for the first quarter overall.

More than half of the summer visitors to Fairbanks are tied to cruise-tour packages, Hickok said, and because of that she expects similar visitor numbers to last year.

Delta is offering nonstop service from Seattle to Fairbanks and United Airlines will again be flying direct between Fairbanks and Chicago and Denver this summer, routes it first flew in 2013. Frontier Airlines will also be flying between Fairbanks and Denver, Hickok said, providing more options for travelers and hopefully driving down airfares to the Golden Heart City.

“Competition is a good thing,” she said.

Interior businesses tied to winter tourism are reporting more and more international visitors from nontraditional markets like Taiwan, Australia and China, Hickok said — a trend she hopes to see grow.

“We’re seeing a good mix of international visitors that I think is going to carry over into summer,” she said.

Hickok and Saupe spoke to the Journal from Chicago, while attending the U.S. Travel Association’s 2014 IPW (International Pow Wow) meant to bring North American travel industry marketers together with worldwide vacation planners.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

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