Alaska’s tourism industry has been rebounding in the years since it was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
Visitors to the state during the 2022 season had an economic impact of $5.6 billion, according to a recent report from the Alaska Travel Industry Association with the most recent available data.
And while the association doesn’t have hard numbers yet for 2023, ATIA President and CEO Jillian Simpson expects a detailed look will show it was another strong year for tourism in the state.
What’s already clear is that Alaska welcomed a record number of cruise passengers last summer, accounting for the majority of the state’s tourists, and about a third of the cruise ships carrying them crossed the Gulf of Alaska, Simpson said, bringing visitors into Southcentral and Interior.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jillian Simpson: We still are working off of indicators. We should have better final numbers in the coming month, but we also, statewide, like Juneau, the state did see a record number of cruise passengers arriving, which was very good. And then we also saw probably an increase in border crossings of highway traffic. Ferry travel was, we believe, probably pretty flat. And air traffic was pretty consistent with the previous year, but we think the independent traveler, which was really strong in 2022, probably went down just a little bit in 2023. However, the cruise traffic makes up about 60% of summer visitation to Alaska, so we feel like we had a good summer season in 2023.
Michael Fanelli: How about looking at the past several years, or decade, even. I mean, clearly the cruise industry trajectory is going up. Would you say Southcentral and Interior tourism is generally increasing, too?
JS: Yeah, pre-COVID, I mean, we were definitely seeing a trajectory of growth across all sectors. And then, obviously, COVID was the huge disrupter. And we’re still recalibrating after that. But I think that we’re back on that growth trajectory. So definitely cruising has gone up.
The other place that we have seen a lot of growth, especially when you’re looking at over the past 10 years, has been in winter tourism. So the increase in the number of visitors that come in the winter time has definitely been growing. Sometimes at a faster clip than our summer visitation. Definitely not more volume, but just the percentage of increase year over year has been higher each winter. So Alaska is becoming more and more of a year-round visitor destination.
MF: When it comes to the cruise tourism specifically, I know there’s been a lot of local pushback in some Southeast communities that the numbers maybe are now starting to get too high. And I realize you’re an advocate for the tourism industry, but I’m curious if you think that the idea of limitations in certain cities might be a reasonable thing to pursue.
JS: Yeah, I mean, I think every community has to decide what is, you know, best for them. Certainly, the tourism economy and the cruise ship sector that brings so many visitors is really good for communities and for the economies. And I know that there are a lot of great conversations that are happening with stakeholders in each community about disbursement and ways to alleviate some of the strains that some people may be feeling. But I think overall, tourism is good for communities. It’s good for the economy, and it’s good for Alaska.
MF: I realize that 2024 just started, but do you have an outlook yet for the coming year? What are your expectations at this point?
JS: Yeah, I mean, it’s still early to tell, certainly for summertime. The booking windows have been shrinking. So we’re still a little far out to be able to have really good predictions, but early indicators are positive. Like I said, the winter tourism right now is going strong, so that’s a good sign. The global demand for travel has not diminished at all and probably will continue to increase. Airlines are predicting that there will be even higher demand in 2024 than there was in 2023. We talked about cruise travel being flat for the coming year. And international travel is definitely back. So the United States is experiencing more international arrivals. But also that means that, all of those things are all good indicators for Alaska, but they’re also good indicators for other destinations. So the competition will be strong, but we are cautiously optimistic. [We will] continue to promote ourselves in the marketplace as a quality visitor destination, and hope to get more people here.