Outlook cloudy for summer tourism

Posted: Monday, January 27, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Bookings for the Riverboat Discovery started well his year but have tapered off, leaving Interior tourist businesses wondering about the summer season ahead.

Last year, Interior businesses saw significant drops in tourism numbers, which many blamed on a slowed economy and cautious travelers after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

But with riverboat bookings for this summer slowing, the success of the Interior's upcoming tourism season is a mystery, said Johne Binkley, Riverboat Discovery president.

''We're hoping it's better,'' Binkley said.

The company, which offers tours of the Chena and Tanana rivers, reports a slight increase in bookings over last year at this time, he said.

But talk of the U.S. going to war with Iraq and economic conditions may keep people at home in 2003, travel industry experts are saying.

Many cruise ship officials call the riverboat bookings a good gauge of Interior tourism.

Last year, the number boat customers was down 20 percent, Binkley said.

Discounted cruises could have been a factor in the lower Interior visitor numbers last year, said Ron Peck, president of the Alaska Travel Industry Association.

That meant more budget-conscience people were opting for cruises without the land tour option.

That could happen again, he said.

''We're getting mixed signals,'' Peck said. ''Some of the bookings signal an improvement. We hope so, but we're not sure.''

Business was down by 15 to 25 percent last year at Gray Line of Alaska, a tour bus business that offers land tours and ferries Holland America railroad passengers to their hotels.

''I think it's going to be a better year than last year,'' said Gideon Garcia, Gray Line's division manager.

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