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UAF Study: Birdwatching Brings Millions of Dollars to Alaska

Jul 15, 2022 | News, Science, Tourism

People Birdwatching in Alaska

Birdwatchers search Beluga Slough in Kachemak Bay.

LISA HUPP | U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

Thousands of birdwatchers flock to Alaska each year, drawn by the chance to check rare and hard-to-find species off their list. In doing so, they provide an often overlooked boost to the economy and incentive for conserving habitat.

Stealth Visitors

New research by UAF and Audubon Alaska found that nearly 300,000 birders traveled to the state and spent about $378 million in 2016. Birdwatching supported roughly 4,300 jobs in Alaska that year, comparable to the mining and telecommunications industries (but not necessarily similar in terms of income for jobholders).

The study notes that the segment of Alaska tourism not associated with large ship, rail, or bus cruise lines is under-studied. It’s also an under-tapped opportunity for developing small niche ecotourism businesses.

Compared to other tourists, birders spent more money, stayed longer, and traveled to more roadless and remote regions during their visit. Prompted by the need for stealth and insider knowledge on birding spots, birdwatchers tended to travel in smaller groups and engage in more activities, like guided tours, than nonbirders.

“Independent travelers are more likely to take a flight out to the Pribilofs or go to the Aleutians to see an exotic species they can’t find elsewhere, or book a trip with a small operator who drives Sprinter vans from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay,” says Tobias Schwoerer, an economist at the UAF International Arctic Research Center.

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Alaska Business December 2022 Cover

December 2022

The study was inspired by visitors who departed the typical tourism path and emerged with binoculars in hand at Haines Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, where Natalie Dawson led birding hikes and bike rides. Dawson, previously with Audubon Alaska, initiated the study and recruited Schwoerer for the economic analysis.

To quantify the economics of Alaska’s bird tourism, Schwoerer engaged the Alaska Visitors Statistics Program, a statewide study commissioned by the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development. Every four years, interviewers contact visitors as they exit Alaska via air, cruise ship, or the marine and land highway systems. The survey gathers information on visitors’ activities, the amount of money they spent, and where and how they traveled across the state.

Schwoerer incorporated these visitor statistics into a computer model to visualize how birdwatchers’ spending trickled through the economy. Nearly half of the bird-related tourism spending took place in Southeast Alaska, typically on tours. Well-known birding destinations like Nome also emerged as hot spots for birdwatcher spending and illustrated the economic benefit to communities of investing in nature-based tourism infrastructure.

Incentive to Preserve

A bluethroat bird

A bluethroat sings near UAF’s Toolik Field Station north of the Brooks Range. The mostly Eurasian bird’s range extends just over the Bering Sea into northern Alaska. If birders want to see a bluethroat in the Americas, they have to travel to Alaska.

SETH BEAUDREAULT | TOOLIK FIELD STATION

“Sustainable and well-managed birdwatching is a growth sector. Birdwatching in Alaska is a type of tourism where Alaskans can capitalize on the region’s intact lands and waters,” says David Krause, Audubon Alaska’s interim executive director and director of conservation. “It’s an exciting place of opportunity that protects irreplaceable and fragile ecosystems while supporting jobs.”

The study was funded by the Edgerton Foundation.

“This study gives us a glimpse of how diverse our state’s tourism is and can be in the future, as well as how intertwined our communities are with visitors in the shared experience of marveling at the wonders of birds,” Dawson says.

Alaska Business December 2022 cover
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