More than a year after the global pandemic throttled Alsaka’s largest industry, there are indications that far north tourism is on the comeback trail.
Transits buses to the Eielson Visitor Center in Denali National Park and Preserve are booked through June 23, according to the concessionaire’s website, and climbers on 20,320-foot Mount Denali, the continent’s tallest peak, were at the end of May lining up to make the trek from the 14,000-foot camp to “high camp” at 17,200.
A photo the Park Service posted on its Denali Dispatches blog (see above) was reminiscent of the historic pictures of Chilkoot Pass during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s.
Granted, the 984 climbers registered to climb as of this writing is well below the more than 1,200 who showed up to attempt the mountain in the year before the pandemic stormed onto the scene.
And the shortage of space on the buses is in significant part due to the Park Service’s failure to adequately increase staff for the 2021 season. Some visitors are being forced onto more expensive, privately run tour buses, which some in Healy have suggested might be an effort on the part of the Park Service to help out park-linked businesses that took a big hit when Denali largely shut down.
Since that criticism started rumbling, the Park has, however, upped the number of seats available on park buses.
Whatever the case, the situation is undeniably way better than last year when climbing on Denali – though not elsewhere – was banned for the season, and other park services were significantly scaled back.
A near-empty park
Park visitation for the year fell to less than a tenth of what has come to be the norm.
Given that what happens in Denali spreads across Alaska – the park is the biggest tourist attraction in the central part of the state – the ripple effect was felt by tourism business almost everywhere.
The Park Service in 2017 calculated Denali spun $906 million in statewide, economic impact out of 634,000 visitors that year. As of now, no one has calculated the loss due to the visitor number falling to 54,850 last year, according to park statistics.
Lockdowns, travel restrictions that followed when lockdowns were eased, and simple fear of the pandemic disease COVID-19 combined to visit a disaster on the many in an Alaska tourism industry dependent in some way or another on Denali traffic, but there strong indications that tide has begun to turn.
National media is already expecting crowds in Alaska as the country slowly but steadily learns to live with the latest of the many diseases daily trying to kill homo sapiens.