The tiny town of Skagway at the northern end of the Alaska Panhandle remains ground zero for 49th state tourism, according to the latest data out from the National Park Service.
Close to 1 million visitors trooped into the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park offices there last summer, the federal agency reported. As many or more are expected again this summer as the Park Service kicks of the start of its next 100 years.
This sort of tourism qualifies as an invasion in a community home to only about 1,100, regular residents. The size of the invasion is only compounded when one considers nearly all 912,251 2016 visitors came during a tourist season that is only about four months long.
That makes for an average of about 228,062 people per month or 32,580 per week or 4,654 per day, which would be a daily quadrupling of the year-round population.
Skagway is a busy little place in the summer. Not that many complain.
“Thar’s gold in them thar tourons!”
A study conducted for the Park Service five years ago when there were only 1.6 millions visitors to the state’s parks – about 60 percent fewer than came last year – pegged tourism as a better than billion dollar business.
“The Alaska visitor industry is the only private sector basic industry that has grown almost continuously since statehood and continues to grow,” wrote researchers Steve Colt and Ginny Fay.“Alaska’s visitor industry accounted for an estimated 37,800 full- and part-time jobs from May 2011 to April 2012, including all direct, indirect, and induced employment. Estimated peak employment was 45,000. These jobs resulted in total labor income of $1.24 billion. Visitors spent $1.7 billion in Alaska, most of it in the summer months.”
Skagway saw its first boom more than a century ago when it became the jumping off point for the rush to gold in the Canadian Klondike in 1896.
That boom didn’t last long. The city’s population swelled to an estimated 30,000 only to shrink back to about 1,800 by 1900. By the 1930s, it was down under 500. For decades after, all that kept it alive was the White Pass & Yukon Railroad which hauled ore and ore concentrates from mines in the Yukon Territory, Canada, across the border to the U.S. port.
That ended in 1982 with global mineral prices falling. Lucky for Skagway, the new Klondike park was by then six years old, though hardly anyone had noticed. That was about to change.
The park eventually sparked its own little boom as interest in the Last Frontier skyrocketed.
The People Rush turns out to have lasted a lot longer than the Gold Rush. Park visitation first topped 100,000 in 1986. Then the cruiseships started dropping by in 1993.
Visitation quadrupled to more than 400,000 by 1993 and grew steadily, doubling by 2003. It now appears on pace to top a million by the end of the decade.
And while Skagway might have seen the biggest boost from a new interest in the north sparked by the build up to passage of the landmark Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980 and reality TV today, plenty of other communities have benefited.
Statewide, the Park Service reported on Monday, Alaska parks set a record last year with 2.78 million visitors. Denali National Park and Preserve followed Skagway as the second biggest attraction with 587,412 visitors.
Denali, and more specifically the development just outside the park along a half-mile stretch of highway now known both affectionately as disparagingly as “Glitter Gulch,” has been a godsend for the Denali Borough.
Of the borough’s $4.2 million in revenue last year, $3.2 million came from a bed-tax on Glitter Gulch accommodations. The other $1 million was almost all state revenue sharing and federal payments in lieu of taxes on park lands.
Some Alaskans don’t much like tourism. The state has plenty of NIMBYs who’d like their front yard to remain wilderness (with, of course, a Costco out the back door), but the reality is that tourism is one of the few growth industries in a state with declining oil, declining oil revenues, and a strong distaste for any sort of resource development other than oil.
All of which makes Park Service promotion of Alaska tourism a plus if – like Skagway – a community can get visitors to leave some money behind.
Alaska communities in or near parks tend to have benefited more or less depending on the dictates of transportation systems.
The 520,171 visitors to Glacier Bay National Park come largely by cruiseship and do little to boost the economy of Gustavus, the community at the entrance to the park. But just across Icy Strait, a development built and owned by Huna Totem Corporation, the Alaska Native company for the village of Hoonah on Chichagof Island, does a bang-up tourism business at Icy Strait Point.
Icy Strait Point is a privately owned tourist destination that starts welcoming cruiseships in mid-May and sees the last one off at the end of September. The Point packages up soft adventure – sea kayaking, bear viewing, whale watching, jeep tours through the rain forest, and the world’s longest zip line.
“Icy Strait Point is Alaska Native owned-and-operated, with all profits directly supporting the community of Hoonah, Alaska’s largest Native Tlingit village. Our dedicated staff—85 percent of which call Hoonah home—is committed to providing a one-of-a-kind experience for every guest that is infused with our local Native culture and hospitality,” the company website notes.
Huna Totem has managed to tie itself to an old park and bootstrap into an economic future.
Klondike, Denali, and Glacier Bay – especially the later two – are old and well-established Alaska parks that spent decades building reputations as adventure destinations, but Alaska’s now fourth-most-visited park didn’t arrive on the scene until the passage of ANILCA.
Kenai Fiords National Park attracted only 16,000 visitors its first year in existence, but grew to a peak of 346,852 in 2011 when the Lower 48 economy started to slump. Kenai numbers were down through 2014, but came back in 2015 and by last year were back to where they were in 2011.
Seward has actively promoted tourism with positive results.
“Seward has transitioned from an economic dependence on resource based markets to a visitor and recreation-based economy,”a 2014 Seward Boat Harbor plan noted. “Most economic growth since 1990 has been driven by the visitor industry, with employment in trade, services and transportation growing at a 5.9 percent annual rate, until the recession that began in late 2008. The community has capitalized on its road and railroad connections to Anchorage; its cruise ship terminal (approximately 50 vessels call each summer); and its location as the major access point for visits to the Kenai Fjords National Park and the Chiswell Islands (the most visited part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge). Seward’s Alaska SeaLife Center is another major visitor attraction.”
After University of Alaska Institute of Social and Economic Research economists Scott Goldsmith and Stephanie Martin took a look at the Seward economy in 2010, they concluded that “most of the economic growth, particularly since 1990, has been driven by the visitor industry. Although there is no direct way to track this industry, employment in trade, services, and transportation—the sectors that provide the most visitor-related jobs—grew at an annual rate of 5.9 percent. Retail sales from summer visitors have grown at an 9.9 percent annual rate (inflation adjusted) since 1987.”
Although Alaskans might not always like tourists, there’s no denying visitors are now vital to the state’s economy, but their economic impact is not spread equally across the state.
There remain rural parks in Alaska that are the least visited parks in the country, possibly the world.
The remote Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve on the Alaska Peninsula saw only 100 visitors last year. There were only 1,146 people who entered the 2.5 million acres Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, which is actually road accessible though not easily so. The preserve is located between Eagle, just off the Taylor Highway connecting Alaska to Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada, and the Circle on the Steese Highway north of Fairbanks. It is possible to float the Yukon into and out of the park and many once did.
Visitation was over 10,000 a year in the mid-2000s. It has since faded. True wilderness intimidates many in American today.
Thus, Aniakchak and Yukon-Charley are not alone in their solitude. Gates of the Arctic National Park, one of the state’s most famous parks, attracted only 10,047 visitors last year. A lot of people are talking about the Arctic these days; not many people are visiting the Arctic.
Gates is an 8.5-million-acre park in the Brooks Range but five miles off the Dalton Highway running north from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay. Gates is almost four times the size of Yellowstone National Park, and yet it is visited most often by the people who live in the 11 small, isolated, predominately Native villages scattered throughout.
Alaska parks, it seems, have both ends of the economic game covered: big business and no business.