Staying Hot in Alaska

This year, wilderness travel and education company Alaska Discovery enters its 35th year, having survived despite its short booking season and lack of luxury travel options. Now, as Alaska Discovery faces increasing competition from cruise lines entering the region, the company has decided to remain true to its rugged and sustainable tourism roots, using those angles to get travelers off ships and onto the mainland. Alaska Discovery guests trek through a glacier

"The cruise companies are very smart to take on some of the active images of kayaking and walking on glaciers in Alaska to promote the cruises," says Nadia Le Bon, director of polar and special programs for Mountain Travel Sobek, which bought Alaska Discovery in 2000 but retained the brand.

All major cruise lines, including Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Princess, offer Alaska itineraries that have shore excursions. "In reality, you pay extra for them and it is an add-on for many cruises," says Le Bon. "It's not the same if you went out for a week in the wilderness and experienced it firsthand." That firsthand experience becomes more important as global warming takes its toll on Alaska's landscape. "It's been hit five to 10 times more than any other part of the country in terms of climate change," she says, "so I think it's important for people to see it soon and in an authentic way."

From the beginning, Alaska Discovery touted itself as a pioneer of sustainable tourism and that concept is still integral to the company today. "The idea of Alaska Discovery was always to tread lightly," Le Bon says. "The people who started Alaska Discovery were real preservationists and when they sold it, they did it to spend more time doing conservation."

Alaska Discovery got its start when Chuck Horner, a Juneau outdoorsman, decided the best way to save the state's Admiralty Island from deforestation was to show people the landscape, as well as the bears, bald eagles and Sitka black-tailed deer that were at stake should the cutting have taken place. In 1972, Horner's camping trips became a business, and, in 1980, Admiralty Island became a federally protected Wilderness Area.

This commitment to ecotourism is just one way Alaska Discovery plans to compete against the more profitable cruise ships. The company is a founding member of the Alaska Conservation Foundation and also asks guests to participate in its "Dollar A Day" program by contributing one dollar for each day of the trip, which is then donated to different Alaskan ecological organizations.

At the request of customers, Alaska Discovery has softened some of its itineraries by increasing the numbers of trips that are lodge-based. In brochures, the company emphasizes the uniqueness of the experiences that can only be had on land. "These are very specialized wilderness trips that we run," Le Bon says. "We transfer you by small plane and helicopter and goods have to be transported ahead of time. I just went on a 12-day wilderness river trip and 11 days out of 12 we didn't see a soul. For the entire summer, maybe 150 people run that river." Le Bon admits that trips are fairly expensive, about $3,500 per person, including tour guide, food and use of rafts and other equipment, due to Alaska's very short peak season of June through August. "The cruise companies can offset that by doing other cruises the rest of the year," Le Bon says.

Alaska Discovery's offerings include expeditions on the Alsek, Kongakut, Hulahula and Tatshenshini rivers, sea-kayaking glacier adventures and inn-to-inn hiking and multi-sport trips.

Tours operate in national parks, so rules for camping, kayaking and other activities are pretty strict in order to preserve the land. Trips also require physical preparation on the part of the traveler, as everything is carried individually. You might think it would be hard to find clients interested in such rugged trips, but consider that Alaska Discovery has been in business for 35 years. "Our trips are basic and remote," Le Bon admits, "but it's an absolutely amazing experience."

Information for Agents

Phone: 800-586-1911 Web site: www.alaskadiscovery.com Agent liaison: Eileen Murphy, ext. 6046 Commission: 10 percent

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