The cruise ship Norwegian Pearl sails its final voyage of the 2013 season through Chatham Strait in September 2013

The cruise ship Norwegian Pearl sails its final voyage of the 2013 season through Chatham Strait in September 2013

When the Alaska Travel Industry meets, members want to hear the numbers. At this week’s conference in Sitka, experts presented the latest information on visitor traffic trends. As Emily Forman reports, they are optimistic about growth.

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Well over ten years ago, I was just a statistic – another body contributing to the count of visitors traveling to Sitka on a cruise ship. Now, I’m a returning visitor, this time by plane.

Heather Haugland – project manager at the McDowell Group – also recalls a time when she contributed to the visitor industry in Sitka as a kayak guide. She likes to tell the story of the time she accidentally flipped her boat in front of a client.

“I had to actually do the whole tour in 6 inches of cold wet sea water. After that I moved on to research.”

Beyond lessons on how to balance in kayaks, Haugland offered some insights on visitor traffic trends. She stressed the important impact visitors have on Alaska’s economy.

“The visitor industry brings in new outside fresh dollars into the Alaska economy and that makes it really really valuable. 8% I think is something to be really proud of, and to advertise it is a big chunk of our economy.”

Haugland also provided a snapshot of visitor traffic from cruises. This mode of transportation has seen some positive growth up 6% from 2012 to 2013, recovering from the two earlier years previously marked by the Recession. But, Haugland does warn about being more conservative in the coming year – that’s because of an expected 3% drop in cruise passengers next season. That’s a loss of 28,000 visitors.

“So, you can kind of see the trajectory I mean we kind of have 2 steps forward and one step back, but still this next year will be still above, by 7%, these low years,” says Haugland.

One explanation Haugland mentions for the recent step back is the Princess cruise line’s redeployment of ships. They are sending more ships to the Asian markets.

While cruise lines are exploring new markets, passengers are becoming more independent. Haugland explains that cruisers are finding ways around the shore excursion booking process that the lines encourage.

“They are renting cars, they are renting RVs they are getting off the beaten path, they’re finding other packaged tours or just going out on their own. They’re actually waiting until they get to port then choosing their tour and buying independently.”

But the big news, according to Haugland, had to do with what was happening outside of the cruise sector. It was the increase in the number people visiting Alaska by plane – counted when each passenger flies out of the state. Haugland looked at May through August numbers, from 2012 to 2013 and found,

“It was up 7% when I saw that I was like oh my gosh huge! Because last year it was only up 1%.”

Haugland attributes this to fiercer competition among airlines.

“Let’s see Virgin America entered the market Jetblue  doubled their capacity. So, that was good for last minute bookings, and increasing travel  to anchorage especially, that was up 8%.”

With the steady increase in cruisers, and a growing number of domestic air travelers, Haugland says the visitor industry outlook is good.

I also spoke with Susan Bell, the state Commissioner for Commerce, Community, and Economic Development. Bell says the small ship industry is one area to watch when envisioning future growth.

“They showcase Alaska in a different way. They go to communities that the large ships don’t go to because they don’t have the infrastructure or the product available, and also because the small cruise lines originate in the region. It gives people a chance to spend time in Alaska on their own before or after their cruise. So it’s a small but very significant part of the industry.”

She also offered some perspective on how individuals might benefit from growth in the visitor industry.

“If someone is thinking I’m not directly involved in it, if you think about the local and statewide tax base you really need a healthy economy for the rest of the kind of things we have as residents. Libraries, pools, public safety education.”

Like Haugland, Bell is optimistic about Alaskan Travel Industry growth.