More visitors are opting for soft-adventure activities, such as heli-hiking, when traveling to Alaska. // © 2012 Steve Faber
Visitors love Alaska because it offers the possibility of unexpected adventure around every bend. Perhaps it is the unpredictability of the Last Frontier that appeals to the adventurer at heart who is searching for something more. Tour providers grasp this predilection and have been focusing more of their efforts on unusual and unique experiences.
Their reasoning is sound. Many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have already experienced Alaska multiple times, and they want something different to give them bragging rights. Travel agents would do well to review the offerings below as they provide good examples of the continually changing nature of Alaska tourism.
New Twists On Old Favorites
Alaska Heritage Tours is catering to the changing dynamics of family travel.
“More people are traveling with family and friends or returning to Alaska to experience something new with people who are special to them,” said Dee Buchanon, marketing manager for Alaska Heritage Tours. “We are also seeing more multigenerational travel. For these groups, soft-adventure trips are key — activities such as our Kenai Fjords Tours wildlife and glacier cruises out of Seward are very popular with the senior members, while the younger group members go for the nearby glacier hiking and kayaking.”
Photographing wildlife from tour buses with 40-plus people can be problematic for the visitor who wants great photos to share with the family back home. Bears and moose are popular but so are breaching whales and eagles in flight, picking salmon out of a stream. Photography safari operators are refreshing their tours by simply offering different subjects to photograph.
“People want new and different images that haven’t been photographed a million times,” said Dennis Rogers, owner of Alaska Sea Adventures.
The company reinvents the typical photo safari by avoiding the large-scale, group photo-tour model and focusing on the personal adventure experience instead. Alaska Sea Adventures customizes each trip and gives clients ample time to do what they want. Plus, the tours visit areas where the larger cruise ships can’t go.
“As visitors’ expectations for an Alaska photo safari evolve to encompass more of the off-the-beaten-path locations, it has been our goal to customize each trip,” he said. “We have refined our business to specialize in photographing and observing marine mammals, particularly whales. No other tour photographs the herring spawning run or the eagle concentrations along Alaska’s wilderness coastline like we do. We customize each of our client’s tour and meals. It takes a bit more effort, but the results mean repeat bookings.”
When it comes to wildlife viewing, observing animals from a bus tour in Denali or on an Inside Passage cruise is still popular, but other visitors lean toward a more immersive experience such as the caribou viewing camp in the Gates of the Arctic National Park offered by Arctic Treks.
According to Jim Campbell, co-owner of Arctic Treks, visitors can journey into remote wilderness above the Arctic Circle and often experience thousands of migrating caribou a day — all with the northern lights shimmering in the sky. During the day, the tundra is ablaze in fall colors, with plenty of hiking opportunities on mountain ridges.
The company also offers a polar bear-viewing opportunity out of the village of Kaktovik on Barter Island. The Inupiat Eskimos hunt whale each year, and the carcasses are taken to an area called “the bone yard.” It is there that tours are conducted from motorized vehicles to view the 20 to 30 polar bears that feed on the exposed whale carcasses. Observing polar bears up close is a rare opportunity that is gaining popularity among photographers and thrill-seekers.
“Most of our customers want to immerse themselves in wilderness, rather than accept a canned experience in a vehicle or lodge-based trip,” said Campbell.
Many visitors to Alaska do enjoy a week’s stay at an adventure lodge, but a new twist allows travelers to sample several lodges during a single trip.
Within the Wild is a collection of three upscale lodges — Redoubt Bay Lodge, Tutka Bay Lodge and Winterlake Lodge — in south-central Alaska. The company is owned and operated by Kirsten Dixon and family, and it started with a single lodge before branching out into several lodges in different locations. Instead of a weeklong stay at one lodge, the company offers three distinct and unique lodge experiences.
“People like to jump from one lodge to another, and it’s easier for them when they know the quality is consistent across all accommodations,” she said.
One popular, four-day tour includes a day at each lodge and a variety of adventures such as bear viewing, trekking, yoga classes, a wilderness spa or a helicopter transport to a variety of wilderness activities. Tutka Bay lodge offers a cooking school with daily culinary classes in a seaside setting. All the lodges offer three-course menus that change each week and feature local halibut, salmon, crab and famous Kachemak Bay oysters. Other seasonal ingredients include Alaska home-grown vegetables, berries, mushrooms and Alaska honey.
With the price of many sport-fishing lodges hitting the $5,000-plus a week mark, budget conscious anglers who are experienced in Alaska fishing are saying that they don’t need the bells and whistles and prefer solitude and fishing at their own pace, rather than at the pace set by the lodge managers. They don’t want to be part of the herd.
A few of these smaller sport-fishing operators have been making the most of the struggling economy by offering a quality adventure without the frills that is a fraction of the cost at expensive lodges.
Arctic Grayling Outfitters offers remote guided and unguided fishing, close to Fairbanks.
“Most anglers just want to fish and have a place to kick back and prepare a meal at the day’s end,” said owner Reed Morisky. “With an affordable price, good fishing and a rustic cabin, they can afford to bring more people and have a better time than if they go by themselves to one of the fancier lodges at five times the expense.”
He said that clients want to avoid wasting time and that they want the assistance of an expert as well as some independence.
“Our guests can fly via commercial jet to Fairbanks and, in an hour, they can be in a place that offers a wilderness experience,” he said. “They don’t want to travel all day to get to their fishing location. The main comment is that they seldom even see another person — and they like that a lot.”
He’s finding that visitors in their 30s are traveling in larger groups of five or more, while those in their 50s and 60s are traveling in smaller groups of three to four. He also has adapted by offering both guided and unguided tours.
“Many seniors may want a guide for the day and then do their own fishing for the remainder of the trip,” he said. “This saves them money, plus it allows for private time — which many older anglers prefer — to sit around in the evening, without anyone else around, and enjoy the peace and quiet.”
Alaska has been promoted on a variety of reality shows, which creates a ready market for those who want to experience these events up close and personal. Movies, books and television shows are fueling a desire to see remote areas of Alaska never before considered tourist destinations.
The Bering Sea crab fishery featured on the television series “Deadliest Catch” has become a popular attraction, and the Aleutian Ballad out of Ketchikan offers tours of the crabbing boat for those who want a hands-on visit.
Meanwhile, Denali ATV Adventures allows visitors a glimpse of the rugged Interior Alaska trail, an area that was the site of the tragic story of 24-year-old Chris McCandless, the subject of the book and movie “Into the Wild.” Visitors ride ATVs for up to 20 miles roundtrip, which includes a fascinating discussion of McCandless’ fatal journey, deep-water and creek crossings, several viewpoints of Mount McKinley (weather permitting), opportunities to see wildlife and a hearty campfire meal.
Visitors who may not be up for riding an ATV can still enjoy the remote areas of Alaska’s northern highways and seldom-travelled roads that lead to quaint towns and cultures not seen on television.
While large bus tours are required to handle group or cruise-ship tours, smaller bush plane/van tours are becoming popular with the independent traveler due to fewer passengers and a customized itinerary. These smaller vans target off-the-beaten-path areas of Alaska.
Northern Alaska Tour Company offers 15 different one-day and multi-day itineraries that cater to a variety of destinations in central and northern Alaska. Their fly-drive destinations include the Yukon River, the Arctic Circle, the Anaktuvuk Pass, Coldfoot, Wiseman, Prudhoe Bay, Barrow and Nome.
According to spokeswoman Kathy Hodges, their tours are unique because the excursions focus on what people want to learn more about — a deeper understanding and appreciation of the natural history and cultural heritage of Alaska’s Arctic.
While revised tours and attractions are attracting many repeat visitors to Alaska, there is a percentage of operators who find that standard programs that have been around for decades are still a sure bet. For instance, Camp Denali, located in Denali National Park, doesn’t want to reinvent itself.
“It’s hard to take away the magic of our location,” said Anne Beaulaurier, Camp Denali’s program coordinator. “Sometimes, familiarity is what is important for repeat business.”
Beaulaurier said, like any business, the key for Camp Denali is getting people to book for the first time — but she has confidence in the timelessness of the product.
“When they leave, many of our guests tell us not to change a thing, and our repeat customer base is a strong percentage of our business,” said Beaulaurier. “Our programming has largely remained the same. It has evolved with time and hasn’t become stagnated. Perhaps that’s partially why we haven’t felt the need to reinvent it.”