North to Alaska? The rush is on.


It’s not Klondike-era gold nuggets they’re after, but the gold that comes from mining tourism.

Airlines, cruise companies and chains such as Cabela’s and the Hard Rock Cafe are heading north to Alaska hoping to cash in on a rising tide of visitors to the Land of the Midnight Sun.

After three consecutive years of growth, Alaska’s visitor count reached an all-time high of nearly 2 million guests between May 1, 2013, and April 30, 2014, according to the Alaska Division of Economic Development.

Those 1,961,700 visitors beat the 2007-20008 record by 5,000 people.

“For many national brands such as Hard Rock, Alaska felt too far away to be relevant to expanding a national presence and many thought it would be too difficult to run a successful branch in the state,” said Calum MacPherson, area vice president of operations at Hard Rock International, “but we’ve seen a shift in recent years.”

Hard Rock now sees Anchorage as a “thriving, up-and-coming city that is uniquely positioned with a growing and flourishing cruise business” he said. He also noted that the local population was listed by the Census Bureau as having the nation’s second-highest median income in 2011.

After a soft opening early this summer, the Hard Rock Cafe Anchorage will have a grand opening Sept. 19 at its downtown Anchorage location at Fourth Avenue and E Street, which is where the long-distance Iditarod sled dog race begins each year.

Hard Rock Cafe Anchorage_courtesy Hard Rock International

Earlier this year, Cabela’s opened a 100,000-square-foot store in Anchorage selling hunting, fishing and outdoor gear with wildlife displays, an aquarium, indoor archery range, a mountain replica, deli, fudge shop and other tourist-friendly attractions on-site. Bass Pro Shops, with a wetlands nature center, stuffed animals, an aquarium and other tourist-friendly features, opened an outpost in July.

The new tourism record for Alaska was boosted by increases in the number of cruise visitors, greater air service, growth in winter travel and an aggressive state-led tourism marketing campaign, said Joe Jacobson, director of the state’s Division of Economic Development.

Close to a million visitors toured Alaska by cruise ship last year, lured by great scenery, not to mention a reduction in the state’s passenger head tax from $46 to $34.50.

“After that, many ships returned to Alaska and new ships entered the market,” Jacobson said. Holland America added departures that brought 6 percent more guests in 2013 over 2012, Celebrity Cruises sent one of its new Solstice Class ships to Alaska for the first time and new ships entered the market, he said.

Increased air service helped Alaska boost tourism numbers as well. Virgin America and Icelandair entered the market with service to Anchorage, and several other carriers (JetBlue, United and Delta,) increased the number of their Alaskan flights.

One number that isn’t rising is the age of the average visitor.

The most recent Visitor Statistics Program report that looked at demographics (2011-2012) found that the average age decreased slightly, from 51.6 to 50.7, between 2006 and 2011.

“The glaciers took my breath away,” said Renee Brotman, a leadership coach and organizational consultant from Goodyear, Arizona, who recently visited Alaska on a cruise and is already planning a return trip. “Juneau and Ketchikan are such charming small towns. You can stand in the middle of the street and look up and see glorious mountains all around you.”

Looking ahead, Alaska’s Division of Economic Development doesn’t do a formal tourism forecast. “But because changes in cruise ship deployment have a significant impact on the Alaska visitor market—51 percent of year-round visitors and 59 percent of the summer market—cruise industry schedules for Alaska provide a good indicator of what to expect,” said Caryl McConkie, the agency’s development specialist.

Cruise Lines International Association Alaska estimated that the state will see 972,000 cruise visitors during 2014, compared with 999,600 during 2013, due in part to the redeployment of two Princess ships to Asia.

“Strong early bookings for 2015 indicate that we may make up for some of the loss of passengers in 2014,” McConkie said, “Princess is replacing the Island Princess with the larger Ruby Princess in 2015, increasing lower berth capacity by just over 1,000 passengers per voyage.”

Climate change might help the 2016 cruise season warm up as well.

Since the 1990s, expedition-style cruise companies such as Polar Cruises, have offered sailings on smaller ships (with up to 199 passengers) that leave traditionally plied Alaska waters to explore Iceland, Greenland and sections of the Northwest Passage, which connects the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans.

In 2016, Crystal Cruises plans to be the first luxury line to navigate the Northwest Passage route.

During a cruise from Aug. 16 to Sept. 17, 2016, the 68,000-ton Crystal Serenity, which carries 1,070 passengers, will travel from Anchorage/Seward to New York City, through Arctic waterways historically not navigable by large ships.

On its website, Crystal explains that a cruise is now possible because the “amount of ice in the Northwest Passage has declined considerably over the years, especially at the end of the summer in the southern reaches of the Passage,” creating a window of time when its 13-deck vessel will have minimal risk of running into “ice concentrations.”

Prices for the voyage start at $19,975 per person.

(My story about tourism in Alaska first appeared on CNBC Road Warrior).

In Alaska: goodbye sled dogs; hello airplanes.

Alaska Aviation

Undated winter view of Wien Alaska Airlines airplane with musher and dog team in foreground. Image credit: Wien Collection/Anchorage Museum


One hundred years after the first powered flight in Alaska, the Anchorage Museum on Saturday opens a major exhibition celebrating the rich and remarkable stamp aviation has had on the Frontier State.

That history began as a spectacle. In 1913, several Fairbanks merchants got together to ship a biplane from Seattle to Alaska by steamboat. They then sold tickets so onlookers could watch two barnstormers fly the plane 200 feet above the ground at a lazy 45 mph.

Ten years after that first powered flight in Alaska, Anchorage officials declared a holiday so people could come out and help clear land for the city’s first airstrip.

“In the early days, Alaska was a very inaccessible, remote place, with very few roads and some dog sled trails crisscrossing the territory,” aviation historian Ted Spencer told NBC News. “With airplanes, though, mail could be delivered in hours rather than weeks. Remote village and towns could be connected. Life changed incredibly.”

The exhibit, Arctic Flight: A Century of Alaska Aviation, showcases photographs and artifacts — including leather and fur-lined outfits worn by bush pilots and the tires and handmade skis inventive pilots attached to bush planes to allow them to land on glaciers and frozen lakes.

Even empty fuel cans, fabric, crates and other flight-related items intentionally or unintentionally left behind had an impact in remote places. “Those items were used to make furniture, clothing and household objects that are still around,” said Julie Decker, the museum’s chief curator. “In Alaska, people are very practical.”

Bush pilots became heroes in small towns and villages, Decker said. “They were a connection to the outside world and they could deliver things to places where things could never get delivered before,” she said.


This Stearman C2B biplane was flown by several legendary Alaska bush pilots including Joe Crosson, the first pilot to land on Mount McKinley, and Noel Wien, founder of the state’s first airline. Image credit: Eric Long/Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum



Pilots were also real-life Alaskan characters that had to be skilled in the air and on the ground. “They needed to be able to not only fly the planes, but fix them. And they needed to be able to survive in the cold and in the wilderness,” said Decker. “Imagine how tough and hearty they had to be in the early days of flying when the planes had open cockpits and it was 40 degrees below zero – on the ground.”

Other artifacts on exhibit include a Stearman C2B biplane flown by several legendary bush pilots, ephemera and memorabilia from a variety of former Alaska-based commercial airlines, a 1927 film clip from the first airplane to fly over the North Pole, and bits of airplane crash wreckage, including pieces from the 1935 crash that killed famed aviator Wiley Post and entertainer-humorist Will Rogers near Barrow, Alaska.

And while improvements in technology have made flying much safer than it was when that biplane first came to Alaska, Decker says “weather trumps all” and that flying small or large planes in Alaska can still present a formidable challenge.

“The state is just so huge, with all sorts of water formations, vast and rugged landscapes and extreme, unpredictable weather. Even with modern airplanes, GPS and radio communications, there are still crashes and planes still occasionally disappear,” Spencer said.

“Alaska is still a dangerous place to fly.”

My story: Goodbye sled dogs, hello airplanes. Alaska marks 100 years of aviation history first appeared on NBC Travel.



Sarah Palin’s Alaska? Or your Alaska?

In writing Alaska has high hopes for ‘Sarah Palin’s Alaska’ for this week I kept wondering if a person can outshine a place.

Alaska dog sled postcard

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.

Palin produces
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.”

Alaska volcano brings strange planes to Seattle


It’s not just passengers who are having their flight plans disrupted by the repeat eruptions of Mt. Redoubt.  Many cargo freighters heading to Anchorage for refueling are instead diverting to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA).

According to airport officials, so far SEA is getting at least three times  the normal arrivals of  international cargo planes: 45 during the first four days of diversion, the equivalent of a full week’s regular schedule at SEA.  Now the airport is figuring out where they’ll put more diverted wide-body planes if the volcano stays active.


So are passenger planes being pushed aside to make way for the giant, thirsty, visitors?  “Nope, no delays for passenger traffic,” says airport rep. Perry Cooper, “A passenger may see a big cargo plane next to them at the terminal, but it won’t delay any of their flights. This, of course, is outside what passenger delays are created by the flights Alaska has had to cancel due to the volcano. What has created the cancellation for those flights is creating the extra traffic in the cargo area for us.”

(Photos of visiting cargo planes courtesy Port of Seattle)