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Big visitor boost expected for downtown Fairbanks

By Jeff Richardson

FAIRBANKS — A scheduling shuffle by Alaska’s dominant cruise company is expected to provide a big boost for downtown Fairbanks this summer, with about six times as many visitors traveling to the heart of the city.

Holland America Princess expects to increase its downtown lunch-hour tours from about 4,000 visitors in 2013 to an estimated 24,000 this summer. That surge doesn’t include tourists who take advantage of shuttles between Fairbanks-area hotels and the downtown core.

The higher numbers are because of a transportation overhaul by Holland America Princess. It will begin moving visitors by motorcoach from Denali to Fairbanks, rather than using a more time-consuming train ride that it has in the past. It also is starting charter flight service between Fairbanks and Dawson City in mid-May.

The flight eliminates a 14-hour bus ride between Fairbanks and Dawson City, exchanging it for a one-hour flight. The added time will be spent in either of the two destination cities.

“Not only will they have more time in Fairbanks, but they won’t be completely exhausted from traveling so long,” HAP’s Matt Divens said in a presentation to the Downtown Association of Fairbanks last week.

Kirsten Willett, with Premier Alaska Tours, which handles tours for companies that include Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, said her company also is anticipating local visitor growth.

Willett declined to offer specific figures, but said a 10-15 percent increase in visitor numbers is expected this summer compared to 2013. An increased focus on the downtown area will be part of its tour philosophy, she said.

“We’re really increasing our numbers in downtown Fairbanks,” she said. “That’s one of the comments we got from guests — they want to spend more time downtown.”

Changes in tour itineraries have made a big difference in the flow of visitors through downtown Fairbanks in recent years, as more travelers choose cruise packages for their visits to Alaska.

The last comprehensive survey of Fairbanks summer visitors,

conducted in 2011, found that 58 percent of visitors were part of a cruise package, while 35 percent were independent air travelers. Just 7 percent arrived in Alaska by highway or ferry.

The increase in visitors for Fairbanks as a whole this summer likely will be more modest, although the reduced transit time for many tourists should have broad benefits for the visitor industry, Explore Fairbanks President Deb Hickok said.

“That’s a theme in general,” she said. “Travelers want to spend less time traveling and more time at the destinations.”

Hickok said early reports from hotels and tour operators are encouraging, if not spectacular. The industry still hasn’t returned to its peak days in 2008, but is gradually working its way back from a post-recession slump.

“I think it’s going to be a solid summer, perhaps with a tiny bump up from the year before,” Hickok said.

Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMbusiness.

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