At Alaska Media Road Show, talk of a busier offseason

LAS VEGAS — While the summer cruise season remains Alaska’s busiest, off-season travel is on the rise in the 49th State.

That was one of the trends that had tour operators and destination officials talking at the 20th Alaska Media Road Show in November. The Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA) hosted the event at Virgin Hotels Las Vegas.

“The tourism industry made some good strides in 2023. While there are still some businesses digging themselves out of debt from the pandemic, and we aren’t seeing independent traveler numbers come in as strong as we’d like, the season had some positive impacts … there is optimism for 2024,” said ATIA president and CEO Jillian Simpson.

Winter 2022-23 TSA counts were up 9% over the same time in 2021-22 at Ted Stevens Anchorage Airport and matched or exceeded arrivals for the prepandemic portion of the 2019-2020 winter. In recent years, local operators say they have been adapting summer products for all seasons and introduced specialized winter glacier walks, fat-tire bike tours and aurora (northern lights) experiences.

In Fairbanks, aurora viewing is driving occupancy and airport arrivals between October and April, according to Explore Fairbanks, which noted that those visitors often stay in town longer than summer sightseers in order to maximize their chances of spotting the northern lights.

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John Hall’s Alaska is addressing that growing off-season demand by launching five- to seven-day aurora packages in winter 2025. The Fairbanks-focused tours provide shorter alternatives to existing aurora, Iditarod and winter sports adventures, for those who might be planning to visit multiple destinations during their stay.

“Guests can book roundtrip flights with accommodations in Fairbanks and Borealis Basecamp and travel above the Arctic Circle,” said Elizabeth Hall, the company’s COO.

Officials say ridership on the Alaska Railroad’s Aurora Train has ticked up since the pandemic, and the Mat-Su CVB reported expanded interest in northern lights tours and seasonal activities.

Mat-Su Valley tourism officials expect an additional winter boost this season from the 2024 Arctic Winter Games, a gathering slated to draw 2,000 international athletes as well as their families, spectators and media in March.

Alaska Helicopter Tours added heli-ice skating to its winter roster, and the Alaska Glacier Lodge (formerly the Knik River Lodge) will open for its first winter season in 2024-25.

Summer heats up, too

As winter traffic expands, Alaska’s summer cruise numbers are also climbing. The state saw nearly 1.7 million cruise passengers in 2023, up from an estimated 1.2 million in 2022, ATIA said. That’s also above the 1.33 million prepandemic passengers welcomed in 2019. In 2023, Alaska cruises started about 2 1/2 weeks earlier than last year and extended past mid-October.

Anchorage reported summer 2023 traffic approaching 2019 levels. Sitka’s estimates show 540,000 cruise passengers, nearly double its prepandemic record. Mat-Su Borough set a record for bed tax collection in fiscal year 2023 (from July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2023), and it’s off to a strong start in the first quarter of the current fiscal year (July through September), with numbers on track to surpass last year’s record performance, according to the Mat-Su CVB.

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Businesses say they see signs of that momentum carrying into 2024, as well. The Alaska Railroad’s 2023 ridership exceeded 2019 numbers, with a 4% increase expected next year. Juneau Food Tours had its biggest season ever in 2023, and some 2024 excursions have already sold out.

Though independent travel data for 2023 isn’t yet available, ATIA officials saw that segment soften. Still, some destinations recorded increases.

Sitka’s hotels and short-term rentals were full all summer, and 2024 bookings are already strong. Anchorage continues welcoming noncruise travelers interested in nature and wildlife.

Mat-Su Valley operators are responding to demand with ziplining, glamping and guided hiking, heli-hiking and paddleboarding tours.

“Since the pandemic, when we didn’t have the cruise market, we’ve seen more independent travelers looking for adventure. We’ve seen active millennials who want an authentic Alaska experience,” said Casey Ressler, Mat-Su CVB president and CEO.

Youth movement?

The Mat-Su Valley, Anchorage and Alaskan Dream Cruises were among road show participants reporting a shift in average guest ages.

Alaska Railroad representatives will have final summer numbers later this year, but overall they said they saw more millennial-age travelers than usual. With bookings by working-age adults on the rise, John Hall’s Alaska estimates its average guest age has fallen to between 45 and 50. That audience is driving interest in new, shorter six- to eight-day experiences.

“The shorter tours will focus on individuals and families who are taking a week off for vacation or spring break and will also draw a more adventurous clientele,” said Hall.

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ATIA’s most recent numbers, from its 2022 study, show that baby boomers still represent the largest generational group (38%) of Alaska visitors. But officials say that they suspect that millennial traffic (33% of visitors) as well as Gen X (24%) and Gen Z (5%) are up from previous years. (ATIA did not do generational breakdowns in its studies prior to 2022.)

Officials say things like the pandemic and the 2008 recession seem to be shaping that shift.

“Millennials are all about experiences,” said ATIA marketing director Wendy Swenson. “They’re saying, ‘We don’t want to wait until we’re retired, because we’ve seen what can happen.'”

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