Turnagain Arm at high tide, Chugach State Park, Anchorage
While the Alaskan cruise industry has witnessed drops in passenger count and number of ships, major airlines are optimistically preparing for a rise in visits this summer with a surge of new roundtrip nonstop flights to cities throughout the Lower 48 states.
Continental, United, US Airways, Delta and Frontier have announced new summer flights from cities such as Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia while the state’s primary carrier, Alaska Airlines, will release its summer schedule by the end of March. As of now, the new flights announced will mean over 930 available seats per day.
With increased competition, some travel experts are anticipating lower fares to Alaska this year—which may be a boon to the state’s flagging tourism. The timing of the airline announcements gives hope to agents who sell the destination, as well as Alaska’s tourism industry, which was hit hard by the global recession that last year kept thousands of independent travelers away. Also, this year, cruise-industry cuts mean thousands fewer cruise passengers will fly to and from Alaska.
Roughly 120,000 fewer cruise passengers are expected to arrive or depart from the Anchorage or Fairbanks airports due to the pullout of two large cruise ships that sailed the Gulf of Alaska route last year. That equates to three planes a day, according to the Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA). Even if tens of thousands more independent travelers visit this summer, they won’t fill the seats emptied of cruise passengers, says Ron Peck, the ATIA president.
Alaska by Land
For Wiggi Tozzi, founder and owner of Anchorage-based Alaska Vacation Store, most of his business is land-only so the cruise cutbacks won’t impact him too much—but the increase in flights could provide a boost. “I think the 2010 season will be good for agents like me,” he says. “It will be rough for businesses that rely on the cruise lines—in southeast Alaska (Inside Passage) in general.
“I think we’re going to see over the next two years some reshaping of the hospitality industry in Alaska,” he continues. “My guess is that in terms of dollars spent, that will be better than last year, but less than some of the more recent years...But the pain will be felt disproportionately in southeast Alaska where most of the industry is dependent on the cruise lines, and the realities of traveling by ferry and air make things difficult and expensive for independent travelers. The big change in inventory of cruises is going to push demand into mainland Alaska, and I suspect that in some locales you’ll see record visitation...but in others, such as Denali and Seward, things will be modestly better than last year, but [do] not [expect] records. Both of those communities rely heavily on the cruise lines for land add-ons.”
As for the increase in flights, Tozzi admits he’s not sure what to make of that. “Most Alaska cruise passengers end up on an airplane going one way or the other,” he says, estimating that “a loss of 100,000 cruise passengers is a loss of 50,000 airline roundtrips.”
On a more optimistic note, he adds, “Yet the airlines are adding capacity (though some on routes that didn’t exist before, like Philadelphia to Anchorage). Someone thinks they can make up all of that demand, plus the additional flights. I’ll be impressed if that happens.”
New Flights on the Way
New roundtrip nonstop flights coming this summer:
Anchorage-Chicago, United Airlines, May 15-August 30
Anchorage-San Francisco, United, June 9-August 30
Anchorage-Denver, United, June 10-August 30
Anchorage-Portland, OR, Continental, June 9-September 6
Anchorage-Philadelphia, US Airways, June 1-September 7
Fairbanks-Denver, Frontier Airlines, May 14-September 12
Fairbanks-Salt Lake City, Delta Air Lines, starts June 25; end date not available