With Alaska’s tourism season winding down, early signs indicate it was a strong summer for the visitor industry in Anchorage.
Among the bright spots, hotel demand and overall visitor numbers could reach record levels this year, Visit Anchorage, the tourism bureau for the city, reported Tuesday. Also, an Anchorage economic development group said last month the city is on track to collect record bed and car-rental taxes this year.
Traveler numbers and trip lengths in Alaska this year are being helped by what’s known as “revenge travel,” said Julie Saupe, president of Visit Anchorage.
People are prioritizing travel, sometimes taking long trips or multiple trips in a year, to make up for cancellations associated with the pandemic that began in March 2020, she said.
“After a couple of years not traveling, some people have decided they were going to go big this year,” Saupe said. “There is pent-up demand, people have been at home saving money, and Alaska checks off what people are looking for: wide open spaces, beautiful scenery and broad horizons.”
Like last year, lots of independent travelers unaffiliated with a cruise tour ventured to Alaska this summer, she said. Large cruise ships also returned to Southcentral for the first time since the pandemic. That sharply boosted visitor numbers, even though the ships were only partially full in part because some rooms were set aside as COVID-19 quarantine space, Saupe said.
Chelsea Smith said it was a great summer for Go Hike Alaska, a small Anchorage-based company that leads excursions into the Chugach Mountains and other parts of Alaska.
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“We were slamming in June, July and August,” said Smith, who books trips and is the company’s operations manager. “I believe we had a record year. We had more guides this year than last year, and we were still booked up.”
According to Visit Anchorage:
• Passenger counts at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport are up from last summer. They are only 7% below 2019 levels, a recovery that beats the national average. The airport set a record in 2019 with 5.7 million travelers.
• Hotel performance was remarkably strong, with demand nearly equal to 2019′s. “Several weeks this summer saw Anchorage among the top performing markets nationally for accommodations,” the group said in a statement.
• Tourists appear to be staying longer, and tourism-related spending and revenues are up. Anchorage municipal hotel bed taxes for 2022 are on track to grow 20% from the year before, the group said. Municipal car and RV rental taxes were up 34% through June.
A report last month from the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. also showed strong trends in tourism-related revenue this summer. It predicted that bed taxes for 2022 would finish at a record $35 million, in part because room rates have increased while demand is strong. The report also predicted car rental tax revenue would hit a record $12 million, also because rates have risen amid high demand, including through peer-to-peer rental platforms like Turo.
Tourism, like other Alaska industries, has struggled to find enough employees, Visit Anchorage said. Supply snarls were another challenge, the group said.
Still, the tourism industry in Anchorage added back thousands of jobs in leisure and hospitality since 2020, some of the strongest growth of any sector in Anchorage, though still shy of 2019 levels, Visit Anchorage said.
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Hiring, training and retaining employees was a challenge at Salmon Berry Travel and Tours, in part because people are so eager to travel, said co-owner Candice McDonald.
The company, providing guided trips in vans across Southcentral Alaska, saw unusual turnover even after boosting pay, and despite good tips and a friendly work environment, she said. It also created its own day care service at a relatively low cost, which helped it hire a few employees because the pandemic has sharply reduced child-care options, she said.
“We have had more employees than we ever had, but it’s because no one wants to work full time,” she said. “A lot of people wanted time off this summer, so we had to hire more people to compensate for that. More than one person left before the end of the season because they wanted to travel the world.”
But the demand for travel also meant that to date, Salmon Berry has had its best year ever, she said. Bookings are looking strong through October too, she said.
“The numbers are great, so we’re pretty happy with everything right now,” she said. “And we’re kind of excited for November because we can take a break.”
There are also positive signs on the horizon because demand for conventions and meetings in Anchorage is recovering, Visit Anchorage said.
One bright spot this fall will be the return of the Alaska Federation of Natives to the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage for its first live convention since before the pandemic.
The event typically draws more than 5,000 visitors for several days in October and comes amid a constellation of related events, including the also-sizable Elders and Youth Conference held by First Alaskans Institute.
“We’re starting to have meetings return again, which is fantastic,” Saupe said. “That’s a market we haven’t seen since 2020.”