Anchor (CNN) – “Everyone is going to Alaska this summer,” says the woman sitting next to me on a flight from San Francisco to Anchorage. “When I told friends we were going, a lot of them said, ‘We are too!'”
There were times during my recent 10 day visit to the Last Frontier where this definitely seemed to be the case. And there is no doubt that many more people are on vacation in Alaska this summer than at any time since the start of the pandemic.
In Anchorage, I had to wait over an hour to get a table at a popular tourist breakfast spot. Expectations weren’t that great in other parts of the state, but restaurants were buzzing, almost all tables were full.
None of the traditional car rental companies had vehicles, which is part of a well-known national shortage. But I was able to snatch a Volkswagen SUV through the local branch of Turo, an online car-sharing marketplace that’s essentially a transport equivalent to Airbnb.
When my day trip to see grizzly bears and other wildlife in Clark Lake National Park and Preserve was canceled due to bad weather, I was told it would not be possible to reschedule over a month because flights are suddenly so popular again.
Tourists in Denali National Park congregate at the Eielson Visitor Center.
“We have been criticized since we reopened in May,” says my server at the McKinley View Lodge restaurant near Denali National Park. “We expect the whole summer to be very busy, even without the big sightseeing buses that bring cruise ship passengers here.”
Denali’s famous adventure tours were running at near full capacity the day I boarded one of the vintage school buses for a ride along the park’s only road to get a close look at grizzly bears, caribou, moose and other iconic Alaskan animals.
“It’s definitely not as dark as we thought,” says Teri Hendricks of Visit Anchorage. “Our marketing to independent travelers in the rest of the country – rather than international visitors or potential cruise ship passengers – has been quite successful.”
Because Alaska is such a huge state, you can easily escape to a place where you are the only one along a secluded beach or wilderness trail, with plenty of empty and wide open spaces to explore. Places like the Matanuska Valley with its namesake glacier and the Knik River Valley in the Chugach Mountains that provide the outdoor adventure experience in Alaska with a huge dose of solitude.
A young grizzly bear crosses the main park road in Denali.
The degree of rebound seemed to surprise much of Alaska tourism. After the slowest year in living memory, many companies were simply not ready for full capacity and are still struggling to recruit.
“When I started applying for jobs here last December,” says helicopter pilot Warren Foster, who flies tours that land on Knik Glacier, “there was nothing available. No reservations. , no tourists, no helicopter rides, no need for pilots. But then in April I was getting reminders from everywhere. It went from zero to a thousand miles an hour at breakneck speed. “
Alyeska Resort in Girdwood was also surprised by the rebound. “If you had asked me in April how things were going to go, I would have said it would be a good but not a good summer,” said Ben Napolitano, marketing director of the largest outdoor sports resort in the world. ‘Alaska. “A lot of people in the rest of the country were looking for something to do this summer and we seem to be on their radar.”
“We started receiving reservations for this summer in January and February,” says Mandy Vestal of MICA Guide and Alpenglow Luxury Camping in the Matanuska Valley. “But in the spring it started to triple and quadruple – record bookings. We literally can’t take trips the rest of the summer and we’re turning people away. Right now there is a list of 50 night wait just for camping. “
There was no shortage of passengers on the classic Alaska Railroad coastal train from Anchorage to Seward.
While rental cars are nearly impossible to find, visitors face the shortage of transportation by jumping on planes, trains, buses, and more.
Alaska Airlines offers flights to 20 cities in the state, including more offbeat tourist destinations like Barrow, Dillingham, and Yakutat. Three different coach lines provide service between major cities and national parks.
The Alaska Railroad operates passenger trains to popular destinations like Denali, Fairbanks, Seward, Whittier, and Talkeetna. And along the coast, Alaska Marine Highway ferries provide passenger service to more than two dozen destinations in the Aleutian Archipelago and Kodiak Island at the Inside Passage.
Tours are facilitated aboard the Coastal Classic.
Cruises are slowly resuming
While some Alaskan destinations have seen record bookings, this is not the case statewide.
Places like Tok and Delta Junction that serve travelers arriving via the Alaska Highway are still suffering because Canada remains closed to American leisure travelers. The number of visitors arriving by road fell 93% last year, but the recent announcement that Canada will lift some border restrictions on August 9 should help revitalize traffic along the Alaska Highway.
This steep drop in traffic is paltry compared to Southeast Alaska, where the cruise industry has long been the primary source of employment and income. Before the pandemic, more than half of the state’s tourist arrivals (around 1.33 million in 2019) arrived on cruise ships.
But a pandemic-inspired ban on foreign-registered cruise ships – along with massive passenger cancellations – has tipped Alaska on cruising.
According to Sarah Leonard, president and CEO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA), only one locally registered cruise ship continued its routes along the Alaskan coast last year. She adds that “99.9% of our cruise itineraries were canceled in 2020”.
“If you put all your eggs in one basket and depend on cruises, you get slammed,” says Casey Ressler of the Mat-Su area tourism office in south-central Alaska .
A tourist boat passes along the Aialik Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park.
The whole state felt the economic and employment shock. But communities dependent on cruise ship tourism have been particularly affected. According to figures provided by the state government, the number of jobs and wages at Skagway have fallen by around 50% each. Haines and Whittier were also hit hard.
But things are improving. Small, nationally-flagged boat cruises operated along the Alaskan coast for most of the 2021 summer season. And when Royal Caribbean’s 2,476-passenger Serenade of the Seas docked in Sitka on July 21 , it was the first large cruise ship carrying revenue passengers to visit an Alaskan port in nearly two years.
Although the cruise ship ban in Canada is slated to last at least until November, the passage of the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act on May 24 allows direct passage for state cruise ships. from Washington to Southeast Alaska without stopping at a Canadian port as previously required.
“Cruise lines tell me 2022 will be a banner year for Alaska cruises based on bookings and booking changes from 2020 and 2021,” Leonard said. Yet based on industry projections, the number of ships and passengers calling in Alaska will not fully rebound until 2023 or 2024.
Denali’s famous adventure tours were running at full capacity that day.
Go off the beaten track
How did Alaska tourism fare last year? A combination of discounts, flexibility, appeal to the local market and thinking outside the box. “Some companies didn’t survive,” says Hendricks. “But those who did got creative.”
Salmon Berry Travel & Tours, which normally runs shore excursions for cruise passengers, has decided to branch out into the delivery business. “We have started to deliver all kinds of things,” explains Bailey Larousse, manager of the Salmon Berry site. “Christmas trees, wholesale food orders, pet food, groceries at food banks.”
Instead of guiding cruise passengers on culinary expeditions in the state capital, Midge Moore of Juneau Food Tours has branched out into Taste of Alaska subscription boxes that offer a virtual tour of the 49th state via “Views”. , sounds, smells and flavors ”presented in each issue.
Vestel, along with the guiding and glamping companies, has decided that 2020 is the perfect time to invest in new luxury tents and polish the outdoor adventure offerings. “I took the risk of adding more tents because we didn’t know if we were going to get back to normal this year or not,” she explains. “But it worked. We’re pretty much full the rest of the summer.”
And many Alaskans have booked guided trips to ice climb or walk the glaciers. “People wanted social distancing and we’re great for that. We also learned a lot in the last year – like that people wanted more private guides or family groups, so even after Covid we will be offering a lot. no more of that.”
Resilience was a lifeline last year, says Ressler, of the Mat-Su area tourism board.
“The tourism folks in Alaska realized that you don’t have to do things the same way. They realized that you can change, you can improve it. It was like a reset button. it wasn’t easy to get there., “he laughs.