In writing Alaska has high hopes for ‘Sarah Palin’s Alaska’ for msnbc.com this week I kept wondering if a person can outshine a place.
Sarah Palin would say, “You betcha.”
When it comes to a place as big and as beautiful and as unpredictable as Alaska, though, I’d have to say “no way.” Nothing can outshine Alaska. But when it comes to luring tourists, some extra spotlight action can’t hurt.
Here’s the story:
“[A] nature series for political voyeurs,” the New York Times proclaimed. “[M]ore than just your average nature series,” said the New York Post. “A hybrid of adventure travel, documentary — and, despite Palin’s protests, reality TV,” added USA TODAY.
The highly anticipated “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” debuted Sunday night on TLC. The eight-part series features the former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate, her family — and the incredibly scenic state of Alaska.
Some TV viewers couldn’t wait to see the show. Others said they wouldn’t tune in. “I have no intention of watching it,” said Nancy DeWitt of Fairbanks.
“It will be hard not to watch,” predicted Toronto resident Dian Emery, who likened it to driving by a car accident.
But many people in the Frontier State are far more interested in the show’s potential impact on tourism.
When it comes to promoting Alaska as a destination, Palin is a proven producer. “She really does love Alaska and, irrespective of her political leanings, her passion for her home state shows when she talks about it,” said Kathy Dunn, director of consumer marketing for the Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA).
“During the year Palin was the GOP vice-presidential candidate, there was a 4 percent increase in the number of people expressing interest in visiting Alaska,” Dunn said. “Our marketing budget and marketing components were roughly the same as the prior year, so we attribute much of that interest to the fact that Gov. Palin was putting Alaska in the national spotlight.”
That spotlight shone brightly on Palin’s hometown of Wasilla. This past summer, Palin-related souvenirs and guided tours were popular with visitors. Bonnie Quill, director of the Matanuska-Susitna Convention and Visitor Bureau, noticed a lot of people standing in front of the “Welcome to Wasilla” sign, posing for pictures. “That would never have been a visitor activity before Palin’s fame,” she said.
“Forget Mount McKinley and dog mushing,” said Scott McMurren, publisher of the Alaska TourSaver travel discount book. “When someone from Alaska goes anywhere in the world and people find out we’re from Alaska, it’s all about Sarah Palin.”
The producers of the “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” hope her celebrity status remains high profile and bankable. So do tourism vendors such as Kirsten Dixon, owner of the Within the Wild Adventure Company, which operates three remote lodges in south central Alaska.
Palin’s crew spent a day filming at one of Dixon’s lodges, so she has already reaped some benefit from having the TV series set in Alaska. Now Dixon is waiting to see if there will be a measurable uptick in business that can be tied to the show. “We have a bear-viewing lodge. Sarah Palin saw bears on the show. We’re hoping viewers might have an interest in crafting that same sort of experience,” Dixon said.
Ready for its close-up
In the TLC series, Sarah Palin and family set out for well-documented adventures of fishing, hunting, dog-sledding, glacier climbing and more.
“Anything that increases the interest in Alaska as a pristine and wild environment — which is really what we’re selling — is a plus,” said Ron Peck, president of ATIA. “It’s all about additional exposure for our destination.”
Throughout the series, all Alaska has to do is sit there looking rugged, wild, majestic, pristine and picture-book pretty. It’s a role the state’s scenery has played before, most recently on “Deadliest Catch,” a popular Discovery Channel show about fishing crab in Alaska’s Dutch Harbor. Then there’s the History Channel’s “Ice Road Truckers,” which tracks a group of long-haul truck drivers along the treacherous route between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay.
Peck knows a lot of people on the political left will never watch Sarah Palin’s new show. But he also knows there are plenty of people on the right who will. “There are people who adore Sarah and will turn on the show just because it’s Sarah,” he said, “but I’m most interested in those people who fall in the moderate middle. They may turn on the program and gain an interest in coming to Alaska just because they see it in the show.”
Play like Palin
Most of the adventures Sarah Palin experiences in the series can be recreated by viewers. To that end, the producers of the series plan to post background information, links and resources about many of the activities, locations and service providers from each show on the series website. Additional information about Palin-style adventures will be found on Alaska’s official tourism website.
“Alaska tourism has taken a hard hit in the recent economic downturn and a lot of us think ‘Sarah Palin’s Alaska’ might be good for tourism and the state,” said Mercedes Theuer, a Fairbanks resident spending a year doing graduate work in Washington, D.C.
On Friday, Theuer was adamant she was not going to watch the show, but on Sunday night, she and her boyfriend ended up turning on the TV. “Yes, we were watching Palin’s show,” she said 10 minutes after it started. “Call it morbid curiosity.”