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Fairbanks Sees Record Winter Visitation

Jun 12, 2024 | News, Tourism

kckate16 | Envato

While the midnight sun draws tourists to the Interior for the summer, the Fairbanks area is still catching its collective breath from what appears to have been a record winter season. According to the local destination marketing organization Explore Fairbanks, the winter of 2023-2024 surpassed visitor numbers from before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In looking at the numbers, the overall winter season flourished, especially during the month of March,” says Explore Fairbanks President and CEO Scott McCrea. “We’ve also heard anecdotally from many of our industry partners, whether they be gift shop owners, hotels, aurora tour operators, restaurants, or others that the entire winter season was a record for them.”

Passengers Up, Hotels Slightly Down

That sentiment was echoed by Angelika Krinner-Croteau, owner of Arctic Travelers Gift Shop in downtown Fairbanks.

“Over the last few years, my store’s winter sales have surpassed the summer sales,” says Krinner-Croteau. “There were days during the month of March this year where I would literally have a line of customers going out the door.”

Explore Fairbanks tracks statistics such as travelers using the Fairbanks International Airport and the Alaska Railroad, crossings at the Canadian border, hotel occupancy rates, and other indicators to gauge how well the tourism industry is performing.

For the Fairbanks International Airport, combined passenger arrivals and departures for the month of March totaled a record 97,202, a 25 percent increase over March 2023 and a 10 percent increase over the previous record of 88,420 set in 2016. McCrea says that, comparing the March numbers to the 2023 summer season, the month would have surpassed both May (83,751) and September (93,831) and would have only been around 9,000 down from the month of June (106,870).

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For the entire 2023-2024 winter season (October to April), the airport reported 550,951 passengers, 6 percent over the previous winter season of 522,194 and 4 percent over the 2023 summer season of 527,402 passengers. The winter season narrowly surpassed the previous record of 542,346 set in 2018-2019.

The Alaska Railroad also had a record March and for its overall winter season with its oldest route, the Aurora Winter Train, which connects Anchorage to Fairbanks with stops along the way. For the month of March, 4,700 passengers rode the Aurora Winter Train, a 23 percent increase over March 2023. From the start of the Aurora Winter Train in late September 2023 through March 2024, the service saw 7,923 passengers, 17 percent more than the 2022-2023 season and 16 percent higher than pre-pandemic levels.

While the train operates most of the winter with weekly service, in recent years the railroad has offered additional mid-week service during the peak months of the season in February and March.

“Alaska has so much to offer during the winter months, and it’s exciting to see that reflected in our record-breaking season,” says Meghan Clemens, director of external affairs for the Alaska Railroad. “Winter demand has grown so much that the total ridership for March 2024 alone eclipsed the entirety of the 2011 winter schedule and earlier winter seasons.”

Occupancy of Fairbanks-area hotels for the 2023-2024 winter season was slightly down, however, compared to 2022-2023, with a 62 percent rate this winter compared to 64 percent in the previous winter. McCrea attributed the decrease to continued growth of the short-term rental market through platforms such as Airbnb and Vrbo (Vacation Rentals By Owner).

“There was a 40 percent increase in short-term rental property listings this winter when compared to last winter,” says McCrea. “Visitors in this day and age have so many different options available to them for accommodations above and beyond hotels and motels, especially in a market like us, with lodges, cabins, and other facilities that cater to aurora viewers.”

McCrea says the increase in short-term rentals, as well as higher average daily rates for accommodations, greatly bolstered the bed tax revenues collected by the Fairbanks North Star Borough and city governments in Fairbanks and North Pole. Winter bed tax collections totaled $3.6 million for 2023-2024, an increase of 15 percent over the 2022-2023 record of $3.1 million.

Hotels such as Pike’s Waterfront Lodge, which is currently expanding its property to meet the surging demand, say it was a banner winter for them.

“Pike’s did indeed have a record winter season this year,” says Pike’s Waterfront Lodge General Manager Elizabeth Griswold. “We continue to see both growth and inquiries for future seasons as well. We started to see this increase trend for winter pre-pandemic, but post-pandemic winter has exploded.”

Kory Eberhardt, owner of A Taste of Alaska Lodge and an aurora viewing facility called Aurora Pointe, was equally positive about the season as well as the future forecast.

“This past aurora season was the strongest we have seen since opening in 1992,” says Eberhardt. “The continued growth of winter and the aurora season is impressive, and demand for 2025 and 2026 is already incredibly strong.”

Alaska Business Magazine July 2024 cover
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Best of Alaska Business 2024
July 2024
Welcome to the 2024 Best of Alaska Business special section! For the ninth time we invited our readers to tell us which Alaska businesses they love the most, this year in forty-four categories. Throughout the month of March, you told us who should be featured in these pages, and we're thrilled to be able to publish the results.
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