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  6.  | Alaska and Tourism: A Marriage Made in Heaven

Alaska and Tourism: A Marriage Made in Heaven

Jan 28, 2019 | Tourism

By Vanessa Orr

For many people, a trip to Alaska is a dream come true.

Increasing visitor demand boosts package tour sales

They want to see and do everything from watching whales breech in Southeast waters and riding ATVs along Southcentral trails to learning about mining history and searching out the Aurora in Fairbanks. What visitors often don’t realize is just how large Alaska is and the logistics required to navigate the state—which is why for some travelers a package tour is just the ticket.

“I was born and raised in Alaska and it’s big,” laughs Ralph Samuels, vice president of government and community relations-Alaska for Holland America Group. “I’ve been here fifty-six years and have had the opportunity to see a lot of the state, and I can tell you that it’s not always easy to get around.

“You can fly to Anchorage, rent a car, get a hotel and go, but there’s a real hassle factor when you’re traveling on your own,” he adds. “A tour package can let you see a lot of different things at reasonable prices, and you can pick and choose what you want to do.”

On and Off the Water

Holland America Line and Princess Cruises offer excursions on Alaska’s waterways as well as transportation into Southeast and the Interior, where guests can choose from a wealth of activities. On a day trip to
Southeast, for example, cruise passengers can go ATV riding, visit a brewery, attend a logging show in Ketchikan, or take a zip line ride.

“Guests on our cruises that cross the Gulf to Seward or Whittier can purchase a cruise tour to Denali and Talkeetna and travel aboard one of our own glass-domed railcars pulled by an Alaska Railroad locomotive,” says Samuels. “As part of the land portion of their vacation, they can enjoy a jet boat experience, horseback riding, ATV riding, and flight seeing to Denali, as well as river rafting,
dogsled rides, and more.

“In Fairbanks, they can ride on the Riverboat Discovery or learn more about Gold Dredge #8 and the mining industry,” he adds. “These are all fantastic tours on their own, whether part of a package we provide or not.”

The majority of Holland America/ Princess Cruises’ tour business comes from cruise passengers, with the rest being made up of people who have taken a cruise before and decided that they want to come back to see Alaska in a different way. The company provides vacation options for those who only want a cruise, for visitors looking for a cruise and land tour combined, and land-only vacation packages.

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Guests can choose to go river rafting in Denali National Park on a Holland America Line tour.

Image courtesy of Holland America Line

“There are so many different aspects to Alaska: in Southeast, for example, you can spend an afternoon whale watching, which is far different from what you may see and do in Denali or Fairbanks where you’re on the tundra in pure wilderness,” says Samuels. “We’ve seen people from our Southeast cruises come back at a later time to see wildlife in the Denali area. For both cruising through Southeast Alaska and visiting Denali, our cruisetours [also known as land and sea journeys] are a great way to show off the state.”

Doreen Toller and her husband, Robert, have owned Alaskan Tour Guides in Wasilla for the past twenty years. The company caters to two niche markets—small group tours of up to thirteen people and private tours, which are mostly used by extended families.

“We do roughly the same things for both groups in terms of where we go,” says Doreen Toller. “Private groups take a higher level of planning, but we customize all of our tours.”

Flyfishing at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge.

Image courtesy of Princess Cruises

Most of the company’s tours begin and end in Anchorage, with the majority of guests traveling from Homer to Fairbanks. “We also have a couple of trips that go to Wrangell St. Elias National Park and down to Valdez, but we primarily travel between Seward and Denali,” says Toller, adding that they will also transport passengers from cruise ships.

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ATV touring is a common element of an Alaskan Tour Guides’ tour.

Image courtesy of Alaskan Tour Guides

Alaskan Tour Guides, a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence winner, prides itself on offering multi-day, multi-adventure trips that span multiple generations and offer something for all activity levels. “One of the things that make us unique is that—because we drive smaller coaches and have smaller groups—we are able to get off the beaten path a little more,” says Toller. “We can go where larger coaches or groups can’t, like Indian Valley Mine, the Matanuska Glacier, Eklutna, Hatcher Pass, and Wrangell St. Elias. Our destinations set us apart.”

The Tollers pride themselves on providing an authentic experience, using Alaskan guides and scheduling activities at Alaskan-owned operations. “We look for smaller, local suppliers that have good safety records and can provide a personalized experience,” says Toller. “They need to provide excellent service and be very conscientious and connect with our guests personally, which is what our customers love.

“For example, we’ve been working for years with Dream a Dream Kennel, owned by Mat-Su Mayor Vern Halter,” she continues. “He provides a very intimate experience for our guests; they get to have lunch with a musher and spend some one-on-one time. They get to meet real Alaskans and learn what life is like up here.”

Alaskan Tour Guides guests appreciate that they don’t have to battle for attention as well. “In a smaller group, people are able to do more in the time that they have,” says Toller. “Of course, everyone wants to do everything, but the size of Alaska won’t accommodate that. But they do get to see more because they don’t have to wait for fifty or one hundred people to get on and off a bus, have lunch, or use the restroom. We can include more because we have more time.”

Comfort and Convenience

While there are many people who are fine with hiking Alaska’s backcountry with a tent and a backpack, those who choose package tours tend to prefer to travel in a little more comfort.

“We’ve had phenomenal growth over the past couple of years—Baby Boomers have the income to travel and want to travel comfortably and don’t want to be part of a big crowd,” says Toller of Alaskan Tour Guides’ niche market. “They are looking for upscale tours.”

Guests get to soar above the trees at the Grizzly Falls ziplining expedition in Skagway.

Image courtesy of Princess Cruises

The company has invested heavily into its small coaches, which include leather captain’s chairs, recliners, and large viewing windows. Its fleet includes five coaches, as well as smaller deluxe vans for when they have four to five people traveling. “We put so many miles on in Alaska that we want our guests to be comfortable, not crawling over each other,” she says.

Clients stay in high-end accommodations that are Alaskan-owned and -operated and dine at fine restaurants, such as Ray’s Waterfront in Seward and the Grande Denali Lodge. Toller adds they can also provide moderately priced rooms for family groups on a tighter budget.

“All of our activities are also top-notch,” she adds. “Even within package tours, we try to make it about the individual travelers. We get a feel for the family or group and put together a tour that will best satisfy them.”

Holland America Line and Princess Cruises place a priority on making sure that they are offering something unique to customers—especially because some of their guests are repeat visitors. “We’ve been traveling to Denali for decades, and we’re always looking for something new and fresh,” says Samuels. “We don’t own the attractions, but we have a department that works with suppliers to arrange activities, and they are always on the lookout for something different that guests will enjoy.

“Vendors sometimes approach us with a new idea, and we’ll look at it to determine if we already offer something similar, and if it will sell,” he adds. “Other times, we’ll approach vendors because we’ve heard that a lot of people like their product. It’s a two-way street.”

Benefits to Alaska

While guests benefit from the opportunity to meet real Alaskans and see parts of the state that they might otherwise never see on their own, the travel industry also benefits the businesses who work with Alaska tour operators.

“We’ve been working with most of our suppliers for many years, and they have grown as we have gown,” says Toller. “We started with one vehicle, and now we have seven. For our suppliers, these smaller groups are their livelihood. This is not just some summer job; this is their business. And working with Alaska companies also allows us to keep as much money as we can in the state and in our economy.”

“Tourism is very important to the communities here, and Alaska is very important to us,” says Samuels. “Not only does it keep jobs and money in the community, but from a government perspective, it results in sales tax revenue and property tax revenues from the facilities that we use.

Visitors to Dream a Dream Kennels get to see a dog team in action up close as part of an Alaskan Tour Guides customized tour.

Image courtesy of Alaskan Tour Guides

“Even people who are not involved in the tourism business get the benefit of tax revenue and employment,” he adds. “While some of it is seasonal, we have a lot of management positions that are here full-time, year-round.”

About six months ago, Holland America Group began providing scholarships to high school students in some of the communities it serves. Students in Ketchikan, Healy, and Skagway received funds, and if the program is successful, the company will explore expanding it to other areas, says Samuels.

Finding the Perfect Package

With so many options available, it’s easy to book a dream trip to the Last Frontier…as long as visitors reserve space early.

“While a good number of people start planning eight months to a year out, a lot of others wait until the last minute,” says Toller. “But we are so booked—this year we are selling out a lot sooner than in the past.

“Word-of-mouth travels and the fact is, if you don’t book early, you don’t get Alaska,” she adds. “The biggest challenge is that the state lacks the infrastructure of a lot of other destinations, primarily in its number of hotels. We simply can’t meet the demand.”

Toller credits this to a number of things, including the fact that the domestic market in the Lower 48 is doing well and Alaska is still a top US vacation destination. “We’re basically one giant national park,” she laughs, “and the Last Frontier is on everyone’s bucket list.”

Guests enjoy authentic, hands-on experiences on Alaskan Tour Guides’ customized tours, including playing with puppies at Dream a Dream Kennels.

Image courtesy of Alaskan Tour Guides

Samuels doesn’t foresee a slowdown in cruise traffic anytime soon either. According to the Alaska Travel Industry Association, its cruise partners project a 6 percent to 7 percent growth in cruise capacity, which means that bigger volume ships will soon be coming to Alaska.

“In 2017, we had 1.1 million visitors, and it looks like it will be slightly more in 2018 and 2019,” says Samuels. “Tour operators are looking for volumes of people, and when they add another ship, they can bring 35,000 to 60,000 more visitors to Alaska. We’re excited about the opportunity.”

This same increase may not be seen in non-cruise related traffic, however. “The cruise industry drives half of the Alaska travel market, but the other half of the 2 million visitors we see each year come by air, the Alaska Marine Highway, or drive,” says Sarah Leonard, Alaska Travel Industry Association president and CEO, adding that these visitors may buy a package or come up on their own.

“When you look at the past year, the independent sector isn’t seeing big growth,” she says. Leonard believes that this is due in large part to a roughly 90 percent decline in the state’s tourism marketing budget, which ranks second to last in the nation in terms of state tourism spending.

For people considering a package tour to Alaska, the options are nearly endless, as are the opportunities to see nature, culture, and wildlife that they’d never see anywhere else.

“For almost forty years now, we’ve loved living in Alaska,” says Toller, “and we love showing it off.”

Vanessa Orr is a freelance writer and former editor of the Capital City Weekly in Juneau.

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Welcome to the June 2024 issue, which features our annual Transportation Special Section. We've paired it this year with a focus on the Pacific Northwest and Hawai'i, as Alaska has close ties to both that reach far beyond lines of transportation. Even further out past our Pacific Ocean compatriots and our Canadian neighbors to the east, Alaska's reach extends to India and Singapore. Enjoy this issue that explores many of Alaska's far-flung business dealings.
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