The National Park Service’s latest report on the economic bang Alaska gets from the state’s 54 million acres of parks is out, and the number is what President Donald Trump might call “huge.”
The “2.78 million visitors to national parks in Alaska spent nearly $1.3 billion in the state in 2016,” the federal agency said in a press release Thursday. “That record visitation and spending supported 18,000 jobs.”
Alaska recorded the second-highest level of spending among all states. It followed only California, which is home to Disneyland. Alaska is Disneyland in some ways.
Tourism is big business in both states. As an economic driver in Alaska, the park service concluded, park-visitor spending rippled through the economy to produce $1.9 billion in economic output.
Along with driving many local economies, tourism almost wholly supports some communities. Skagway, home to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, projects it will collect about $6.9 million this year, more than enough to pay for all city services.
The Denali Borough, which surrounds Denali National Park and Preserve, largely funds itself with a bed tax that brings in more than $3 million per year. Most of the tax is paid by the tourists who flock to what has come to be described as “Glitter Gulch,” a half-mile strip of hotels, tourists shops, restaurants and drinking establishments outside the entrance to the park.
The name, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reporter Jeff Richardson wrote in 2013, “is used either affectionately or derisively, depending on the source.
“It’s a scene more fitting of a cruise ship port than a remote Alaska road, where visitors can find a pink toddler dress emblazoned with the Harley-Davidson logo, a pound of glacier mint fudge or a dozen tiny Arctic animals carved in jade. A huge scrolling sign above the Denali Tundra Tours gift shop announces that T-shirts are available at three for $10, as a steady stream of tourists samples ice cream cones on the boardwalk below.
“In winter, the bustling corridor won’t have a single open business. The population, courtesy of a few cabins behind the commercial facade, shrinks to three or fewer.”
Winter tourism in Alaska has been ever-so-slowly growing, but still doesn’t amount to much. Most tourist businesses are forced to act like bears. They come out in the spring and try to gain enough economic weight over the course of the short summer to survive the winter in hibernation.
Last year was good for them, according to Joel Hard, the Park Service’s acting regional director. The latest economic report, he said, “shows that national park tourism is a significant driver in the national economy, and is a big factor in our state’s economy, a result we can all support.”
Skagway and the Denali Park area were the two biggest beneficiaries as they again led park visitation. Visitors to Skagway’s Gold Rush topped 912,000, making the actual Klondike gold rush at the end of the 1800s look paltry by way of comparison. Denali drew 587,412 with Glacier Bay not far behind at 520,171.
Visitation numbers for other parks fell off rapidly, although there were more than 200,000 visitors to both the Kenai Fjords park near Seward and the Sitka historic park.
In Alaska, tourist spending concentrated on transportation (31 percent), recreation industries (21 percent), hotels (18 percent) and restaurants (16 percent) . This differed significantly from national norms, a probable reflection of the difficulty of actually getting into Alaska parks with their few roads.
Outside, more than half of all park spending was for lodging, food or drink, and the next biggest category was gas and oil. Gas and oil accounted for less than 3 percent of the spending in Alaska.
The park service did note the significant number of Alaska businesses that make park visits possible. Flightseeing from Talkeetna is a big business in Denali. Flights into Katmai National Park to view grizzly bears are big for businesses in Homer and Kodiak.
The park service reported more than 400 companies now have permits to operate in the parks. Some are large international corporations, but there are plenty of mom-and-pop operations introducing tourists to the 49th state.
The visitor spending analysis was authored by economists Catherine Cullinane Thomas of the U.S. Geological Survey and Lynne Koontz of the National Park Service. Nationally it found parks supported more than 318,000 jobs and benefitted the U.S. economy to the tune of $34.9 million.
An interactive copy of the study is available online for those who want to dig down into visitor spending, jobs, labor income, value added, and output effects by sector for national, state, and local economies. It is at https://www.nps.gov/subjects/socialscience/vse.htm and includes state-by-state break downs on park economics.