International travelers flock to the 49th State
Everything Collette Harrison thought she knew about Alaska before she visited from London in the 1990s was what she had seen on “Northern Exposure” and what she had read in her Lonely Planet guidebook. On her long-anticipated visit, she took bus tours, a day cruise and a flightseeing trip, but none of her activities addressed her expectations of coming face-to-face with grizzly bears or exploring Alaska’s rugged wilderness, nor did they bring her into contact with similar characters to those she had grown to love on “Northern Exposure.”
However, today’s international travelers to Alaska have all kinds of resources at their fingertips that can pinpoint the right activities to make their Alaska visit the trip of a lifetime—travel agents who have been here in person on “fam” (familiarization) trips, visitor guides updated annually and, of course, the Internet.
“Alaska is definitely somewhere that I would go back to,” said Harrison. “I didn’t even scratch the surface.”
‘Down Under’ Outpaces ‘Across the Pond’
Visitors from the United Kingdom used to be the largest group of overseas travelers to Alaska, but a 2011 survey by the State of Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development revealed that Australians have jumped to the top of the list.
Jillian Simpson, director of travel trade and international marketing for the Alaska Travel Industry Association, said, “Aussies very much enjoy cruising when they come to Alaska and are drawn to seeing the glaciers.”
Kirk Hoessle, chief executive officer of Alaska Wildland Adventures and recent appointee by President Barack Obama to a national advisory board for U.S. travel and tourism, echoes that sentiment. “For all international travelers, glaciers seem to have an added thrill,” he says. International travelers “have a deep appreciation for something Americans sometimes take for granted: wide open spaces and wilderness. Most seem to come from highly urbanized regions with less access to undisturbed ecosystems. They have a great appreciation for public lands and the recreation and wildlife watching opportunities they afford.” Hoessle says his overseas clients are often more adventurous than domestic travelers and are willing to travel off the beaten track to remote corners of Alaska.
Wildlife is another major attraction, especially for European visitors. “Bears once existed in Europe and are extremely rare now,” said Hoessle. “Many Americans have seen black bears, for example, but generally when Europeans see a bear, black or brown, it is often a first lifetime sighting for them and they are greatly enthused!”
According to Simpson, viewing the northern lights is what attracts 99 percent of Japanese visitors to Alaska during winter. The Japanese are the largest overseas market that time of year.
Besides being a popular destination for tourists from Australia and New Zealand, the U.K., Europe and Asia, Alaska also attracts significant numbers from Mexico, Israel and Brazil.
Brazilian traveler Paula Barbosa, in Alaska this summer for her fourth time visiting family, says it was easy to make arrangements herself online. Hiking and other outdoor activities were high on her list of things to do, and this time she shared her enthusiasm for Alaska with her daughter.
Charlene Russey of Charlene’s Express Travel in Anchorage arranges custom tours for both individuals and groups, most of whom come from Malaysia, Hong Kong, China and Taiwan. Her clients include many hobby photographers who love the bear viewing at Katmai, as well as marine trips and land tours. Many want an “all-inclusive” experience, paying one price that includes all transportation, meals and amenities.
ATIA offers its website in English, Japanese, Korean and German. Simpson says they plan to add another foreign language option next year, either Chinese or Spanish. She says the Latin market is emerging and ATIA has been slowly entering it because they “see huge potential.”
Three main factors affect Alaska’s international visitor market, says Susan Bell, commissioner of the State’s Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development: the economic health of a country, access to travel opportunities and the Alaska travel trade marketing presence.
According to Bell, a business has to be sure they have a visibility in the market, and provide travel planning tools travelers need to book a trip. Most local entrepreneurs need to be available three to six months in advance of their tour season in order to capture their share of overseas visitors, who tend to plan and book their Alaska trips earlier than domestic visitors.
Bell says the state is increasing its use of social media for marketing to visitors and working on collaborating with other state agencies such as the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, Alaska Grown and the Silver Hand program, which helps Alaska Native artists promote their work in the marketplace and enables consumers to identify and purchase authentic Alaska Native art.
International Visitor Facts
Above left: International visitors’ top 10 activities in Alaska. Above right: Regions visited, all visitors and international visitors.
SOURCE: Alaska Visitor Statistics Program VI, Summer 2011
In the 2011 report by the state titled “International Visitors to Alaska,” several things stand out.
International travelers (not counting Canadians) now make up 10 percent of Alaska’s total visitor market, an increase from the last time the survey was done in 2006. Most of those surveyed were in Alaska for the first time. Nearly all were on vacation as opposed to traveling for business. Last summer 154,100 overseas visitors arrived in Alaska for an average stay of about 10 nights. Korean visitors stayed an average of 7.4 nights, while the average Swiss traveler was in Alaska for about 15 days.
Australians and New Zealanders accounted for the largest share (27 percent) of overseas travelers to Alaska, bumping visitors from the United Kingdom to second place at 21 percent. German-speaking Europeans (from Germany, Austria and Switzerland) made up 13 percent of international traffic to the Last Frontier. Asian travelers as well as those from Mexico and a variety of other countries comprised the rest.
The average age of international visitors to Alaska was 50.7 years. The oldest international visitors were from the U.K. and averaged 59 years old, while the youngest hailed from non-German-speaking European countries at an average of 43.1 years old. The balance between men and women was about equal.
The Swiss tended to be the most highly educated of overseas travelers to Alaska, with nearly half of them holding a masters or doctorate degree. The highest percentage (58) of college graduates was among Koreans. Thirteen percent of Australians and New Zealanders touring Alaska didn’t finish high school.
Most international visitors arrived in Alaska via cruise ship—Southeast was their top destination. Air was the second favorite mode of getting here, followed by a small percentage that drove or rode a state ferry.
The Australians and U.K. visitors tended to stick mainly to Southeast Alaska, since most were traveling by cruise ship. The Japanese and Koreans headed for Southcentral, while German-speaking Europeans favored Southcentral but also listed Southeast and the Interior as frequent destinations.
Wildlife viewing is a favorite activity for overseas visitors to Alaska.
Photo by Susan Sommer
Once here, international visitors reported that their activities included (in order of preference) shopping, cultural events, wildlife viewing, city and sightseeing tours, train trips, day cruises, hiking, flightseeing, riding a tram or gondola, and taking in an Alaska show or other entertainment. A breakdown by country, however, showed that although shopping is the top activity for Europeans, Australians and U.K. tourists, Japanese visitors said train rides were their favorite activity, and Korean travelers sought out cultural events more often.
Spending by international visitors in Alaska totaled $156 million last summer, not including transportation costs of travel to and from the state and cruise packages. The average per person spent per trip was just over $1,000 once in the state, though a huge gap existed between U.K. visitors at $531 average per person and Japanese visitors at $3,440 average per person.
Bus tours ranked highest overall among types of package tours for all overseas visitors, though the Japanese and Koreans were especially fond of them. The Germans and Swiss, however, preferred to rent vehicles to sightsee.
Two out of three foreign travelers to Alaska rated the friendliness of residents as what they liked best about visiting here.
The vast majority (92 percent) of international travelers surveyed expressed satisfaction with their trip to Alaska, with two-thirds of them saying they were very satisfied and would be very likely to recommend Alaska to their friends and family. Interestingly, the intention to return to Alaska within the next five years was highest among Japanese and Korean visitors even though they were the least satisfied with their experience.
Geography likely plays a role in plans to visit Alaska again. Pacific Rim countries such as Japan and Korea are closer, whereas air travel from the U.K. and Australia takes longer and may involve more stops. Only a handful of international passenger airlines offer overseas travelers options for flights to and from Alaska, including Condor, Japan Airlines and Korean Air.
Al Koch of All Alaska Tours says, “Over the years we have seen non-stop flights from Europe come and go. Condor has succeeded and has now built the frequency to four flights a week to Alaska, and I am told this is one of the most successful routes in their entire system.”
The State of Alaska and the visitor industry recognize what an important role economics plays in international travel decisions. “The Australian dollar has been very strong in the past few years and the favorable exchange rate has resulted in not only more Aussies traveling to Alaska but also a higher proportion of them (compared to the average visitor) thinking that Alaska has a better value for money compared to other destinations,” says ATIA’s Simpson.
The entire report on international travelers, along with one on domestic travel to Alaska, can be found at commerce.alaska.gov. The reports include statistics on visitor volume, trip purpose, transportation modes, length of stay, demographics and other helpful information for existing Alaska businesses and would-be entrepreneurs to meet the needs of the growing force of international travelers.
Susan Sommer is a freelance writer and editor living in Eagle River.