Alaska tourist season sluggish

Posted: Sunday, June 24, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska tourism companies are slashing rates and offering special discount packages to attract business in what most describe as a sluggish visitor season.

Princess Alaska Lodges, for example, is offering $99 rooms at its two hotels along the Parks Highway close to Denali National Park and Preserve. That's dirt cheap for Alaska's peak season. The rooms normally would fetch $149 during June and July, said Tom Dow, a Princess spokesman.

''This is kind of unusual for us to be extending this rate into the middle of the season,'' said Dow. ''By the end of the year, we'll be lucky to end up flat with last year.''

Economic jitters, stock market woes and higher gas prices are the main factors keeping tourists away from Alaska, tourism analysts said. Many travelers that would come to Alaska seem to be wallet-watching and choosing destinations closer to home, said Tina Lindgren, executive director of the Alaska Travel Industry Association, the state's major tourism-marketing organization.

''There's not a crisis. But nobody is saying this is a gangbusters year,'' said Lindgren.

Alaska is competing with Europe for travelers this summer, analysts said. Weakness in the euro, the new European currency, and a strong U.S. dollar have made many European destinations a bargain for Americans, said Eric Downey, marketing director for Alaska Wildland Adventures of Girdwood. At the same time, many Europeans who might have chosen Alaska for a trip seem to be staying away.

''The German market is off by up to 50 percent,'' said Downey. Some charter flights from Germany to Alaska are half empty and airlines have offered fares as low as $600 round trip to entice Germans here, he said.

Hotel owners are also competing against each other. A slew of new hotels have shot up in Anchorage recently. Older properties have upgraded and added rooms as well.

Alaska Wildland Adventures has had to scramble to stay even with last year, Downey said. As part of its marketing strategy, the company is offering some half-price specials at its Denali Backcountry Lodge in Kantishna, he said. Rooms that usually sell for $330 per person can be had for as little as $165. The company offers that particular bargain and others at its Web site,

The Girdwood company is selling the specials to teachers, scientists, naturalists, Alaska residents and the military. Accessing the site requires a password available through Alaska Wildland.

''At these discounts, they can afford some of the nicer things out in the wilderness,'' Downey said.

While visitorship to Alaska seems flat or even down slightly, one sector is perking along, several tourism officials said. Industry insiders call it the ''VFR'' market -- visiting friends and relatives. While some tourists with no connections in the state may be heading elsewhere, people who know or are related to an Alaskan are coming regardless of economic concerns.

''The VFR market is not doing badly,'' said Terzah Tippin Poe, tourism marketing director for Cook Inlet Region Inc. CIRI owns hotels in Talkeetna and Seward and offers day cruises in Kenai Fjords and Prince William Sound.

CIRI is trying to capitalize on the VFR market it by adding value to deals geared toward locals, she said. The company is offering packages that combine a railroad trip to Talkeetna, discounted rooms at CIRI's Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge and a bus ride back to Anchorage. The package sells for $145 per person, Poe said. If purchased separately during peak season, a room by itself would go for $160, she said.

Tourism executives said the state should be spending more on marketing Alaska if it wants to compete effectively.

''There's been a lot of slippage because of the weak marketing effort'' due to declining state spending, said Dennis Brandon, head tourism executive for CIRI.

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